There was a hidden spectator of the NFL match between the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans in London on Sunday: artificial intelligence. As crazy as it may sound, computers have now been taught to identify on-field head impacts in the NFL automatically, using multiple video angles and machine learning. So a process that would take 12 hours – for each game – is now done in minutes. The result? After every weekend, teams are sent a breakdown of which players got hit, and how often.
This tech wizardry, naturally, has a deeper purpose. Over breakfast the NFL’s chief medical officer, Allen Sills, explained how it was helping to reduce head impacts, and drive equipment innovation.
Players who experience high numbers can, for instance, be taught better techniques. Meanwhile, nine NFL quarterbacks and 17 offensive linemen are wearing position-specific helmets, which have significantly more padding in the areas where they experience more impacts.
What may be next? Getting accurate sensors in helmets, so the force of each tackle can also be estimated, is one area of interest. As is using biomarkers, such as saliva and blood, to better understand when to bring injured players back to action.
If that’s not impressive enough, this weekend rugby union became the first sport to adopt smart mouthguard technology, which flags big “hits” in real time. From January, whenever an elite player experiences an impact in a tackle or ruck that exceeds a certain threshold, they will automatically be taken off for a head injury assessment by a doctor.
No wonder Dr Eanna Falvey, World Rugby’s chief medical officer, calls it a “gamechanger” in potentially identifying many of the 18% of concussions that now come to light only after a match.
As things stand, World Rugby is adding the G-force and rotational acceleration of a hit to determine when to automatically take a player off for an HIA. Over the next couple of years, it wants to improve its ability to identify the impacts with clinical meaning – which will also mean looking at other factors, such as the duration and direction of the impact, as well.
Then there is the ability to use the smart mouthguard to track load over time. “It’s one thing to assist to identify concussions,” he says. “It’s another entirely to say it’s going to allow coaches and players to track exactly how many significant head impacts they have in a career – especially with all the focus on long-term health risks. If they can manage that load, particularly in training, that has performance and welfare benefits.”
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