A former NASA engineer could solve rugby's oldest problem

UK-based Sportable has developed tracking technology for rugby balls. It's being trialled in England's Premiership Rugby, like this match between Newcastle Falcons and Leicester Tigers, on March 18, 2022.

(CNN)Rugby can be a complex game, but there is one rule clearly understood by all: you cannot pass the ball forward. Though the concept might sound simple, it can be difficult to officiate.

When it comes to marginal calls, referees can get assistance from a Television Match Official, a secondary referee who reviews video footage, but their decisions are only as accurate as the best camera angle shown to them. Now UK firm Sportable has pioneered what it calls "Match Tracker" technology, inserting a microchip into a rugby ball to provide insights on the ball's movement.
Built with an array of tiny sensors that track acceleration, rotation, temperature, pressure and position, as well as flight-tracking radar and radio chips, the ball can communicate with pitchside sensors up to 20 times per second. The data it collects on the ball's movement is then sent to a software interface that can be accessed by match officials.
    The technology has had to undergo rigorous testing.
    "You have to really get into the math of what a forward pass is," explains Sportable co-founder Pete Husemeyer. A South African with a PhD in nuclear engineering, he cut his teeth at NASA's Center for Space Nuclear Research measuring the thrust of rocket launchers.
      Husemeyer figured his physics knowledge was better served in his passion for sport, and helped launch Sportable in 2015, developing tracking devices fitted onto players' shirts to provide information about their movement.
        The ball-based technology can be used without player-tracking, and Husemeyer believes it may prove the most foolproof way to identify a forward pass. "The algorithm is quite simple in theory but complex to get right in practice," he says.
        "If you get into the maths of what a forward pass is, it's actually about relative velocities. If the ball moves towards the opposition try line faster than you do as the passer, that's a forward pass. The ball's trackers and sensors combine to compare velocities, while the player is holding the ball and after the pass is made, and from this we can make a judgment."

          "Gamified for the players"

          The Match Tracker system is currently on trial in Premiership Rugby, English rugby union's top tier, and in Australia's National Rugby League.
          The technology's potential could go far beyond its ability to help referees spot forward passes. In England's Premiership, it has been used by TV broadcasters to provide in-match data to viewers, and teams including North London-based Saracens, are making use of Sportable's Skill Tracker app for training, getting real-time data on kicking distance, power, spin rate and hang time (the time the ball stays afloat). "We've gamified it for the players," says Husemeyer. "They find it fun, they get competitive about their accuracy."