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Location technology developed for the oil industry helps ECB to deliver bio-secure matches

  • Test venues split into roughly 100 separate zones
  • Bluetooth sensors and tags embedded into player and staff credentials to track movements
  • Company argues technology could be used as a track and trace system for spectators

Bluetooth tracking technology originally developed to monitor the location of workers on oil rigs and offshore wind farms is being used by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to keep players, officials and operational staff safe during this summer’s test series between England and the West Indies.

The postponed three-test series, which started at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton on July 8, is taking place behind closed doors to comply with the current UK government regulations on social distancing which currently ban gatherings of more than 30 people to minimise the risks of spreading Covid-19.

As reported by SportBusiness earlier this month, the ECB has worked with CSM Live, the experience team of the CSM Sport and Entertainment agency, to divide match venues into safety zones with access limited to specific groups, such as players, media and operational staff, and to maintain a strict discipline of separation on site. Measures include health check and sanitisation points for personnel, vehicle screen areas, welfare units, perimeter fencing, temporary walling, temporary accreditation checkpoints, as well as the production of all wayfinding and signage at the venues.

Match venues were divided into safety zones with access limited to specific groups, such as players or media.

To provide an additional layer of reassurance, the ECB appointed Restrata, a British company that has traditionally provided critical infrastructure protection for the energy industry, to install a Bluetooth network throughout the two venues for the matches: the Ageas Bowl and Old Trafford cricket ground in Manchester.

The credentials of all 450 people allowed on site, were fitted with ‘Bluetooth badges’ and a network of sensors were installed throughout the two stadiums that will allow the company to track everyone on site.

This location data is transmitted back to a proprietary cloud-enabled platform which alerts stadium operators if somebody enters the wrong zone or too many people congregate in one room. Restrata claims the technology will also allow the ECB to track and trace any suspected outbreak of Covid-19 within the match environment.

The ECB’s head of IT, Damian Smith, said the system had enabled it to deliver the series secure in the knowledge that it can “comply with the [UK] Government’s comprehensive guidelines for managing events of this nature, particularly those relating to Track and Trace.”

Botan Osman, chief executive of Restrata says the technology’s ability to detect which people have come into contact with one another to within a margin of 10 centimetres in real-time was crucial in allowing the matches to go ahead.

“Should the unfortunate happen and somebody is suspected of having symptoms or somebody is infected, they can do a full contact history report and then see live on the system what contacts the individual has had and essentially track and trace an outbreak, so that is what has given the ECB the comfort really to go ahead with this,” he says. “Instead of saying somebody’s infected and now we have to test or isolate 450 people, you can isolate it to the five or ten people you know they have had contact with in the last period.”

Energy industry

Restrata started life providing critical infrastructure protection for the offshore energy industries where the ability to identify the exact location of workers helps companies to manage their safety, organise musters and manage emergency evacuations.

The company has broadened its scope of work to include the sports industry more recently. It helped in the design of the command control centre for the Metropolitan Police Service for the London 2012 Olympics and in 2017 was appointed to design the safety and security systems for the renovation of FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium.

“All of a sudden the location of the individual and the ability to manage the safety of individuals is so important to so many businesses and so we decided to double down and this is an area that we’ve pivoted to,” Osman tells SportBusiness.

Return of spectators

Restrata is now working with several football clubs in the UK and Europe to devise plans to allow for fans to be safely let back into stadiums. Osman says that the greatest interest has come from clubs in smaller leagues that can’t rely on large TV revenues to prop up their finances while large gatherings are prohibited.

The company proposes integrating Bluetooth badges into football season tickets or assigning them to fans who attend matches on a one-off basis, which it argues would allow rights-holders to isolate outbreaks in much larger crowds of people.

“Let’s say in the first phase, we’re talking about the return of 20 per cent of fans,” says Osman. “Under that scenario, social distancing becomes important because you’re trying to monitor the actual behaviour of those fans and then you could have a number of stewards that intervene when those rules are not being respected.”

“Then, when you go all the way through to full-time return, let’s say allowing 50,000 people back in a stadium, where there’s no social distancing requirement – you’ve thrown that out because you made a determination that that’s not needed – but on the way in, you still do the temperature checks, you still ensure that people maybe have masks on, and then moving on from there, you are able to do track and tracing across the whole crowd live.”

There have been concerns that different methods used to track the Covid-19 virus could lead to invasions of privacy, but Osman argues that the system could be implemented without gathering any more data than is traditionally required during the sale of a sports ticket. He adds that any data could be deleted once the requirement to track and trace is no longer needed if no cases of the virus come up.

This, he says, is preferable to a phone-based track and trace system that registers people who have been in close contact through the digital “handshakes” that occur when the Bluetooth signals from two phones are in close proximity. The UK government’s own attempts to develop such a system have been frustrated by limitations placed on Apple iPhones and Google Android phones that prevent some models from registering Bluetooth matches when they are in idle mode.

Likewise, he believes some of the location heatmapping technologies based on proximity to Wi-Fi hubs that are already employed by different stadium operators to gather data on crowd movements also fall down because of an inability to precisely pinpoint exactly how close fans have come to each other.

“I think that in order to be robust, you’ve got to use Bluetooth detectors and tags together in order to get a real answer,” says Osman. “Otherwise, you’re fooling yourself into thinking that you’re actually going to get context on what’s happening in your stadium – especially when you have fifty to 100,000 people in the same location.

“You’re unable to get to the granular level of accuracy that, granted, previously maybe wasn’t needed if you’re just figuring out whether somebody has been near or round about the hotdog stand. But now we’re entering a phase where accuracy really is needed otherwise you may have a bunch of false positives.”

Even more pertinently, given Jofra Archer’s exclusion from the second test for travelling home between matches and breaching the bio-secure ‘bubble’ carefully erected around the players, Osman says the technology could also be used to track players on transport between matches.

“If there is a tournament on, for example, or another situation where people are being bussed or coached to the match location, then we’re able to track them on those transport methods as well, so that you know where they’ve been all the way through.”

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