Hurling's 'smart ball' could detect illegal handpasses

The GAA’s new digital sliotar could eventually solve hurling’s handpass debate, but the new ball won’t now be used this year, even if the championship goes ahead.
Hurling's 'smart ball' could detect illegal handpasses
The old-style sliotar had been due to be replaced, but the coronavirus has halted those plans.

The GAA’s new digital sliotar could eventually solve hurling’s handpass debate, but the new ball won’t now be used this year, even if the championship goes ahead.

In the long term, the ‘smart ball’ would also have the capacity to replace Hawkeye as a score detection system, says Tomás Mullins, CEO of Greenfields Digital Sports Technologies (GDST), the company behind the sliotar.

The ball is now ready for use, but with production stopped due to the coronavirus pandemic, it will be early next year before sufficient quantities are available for a full launch.

In any case, final approval wasn’t granted for this year’s championship at January’s Central Council meeting.The proposal was deferred to allow for further conversations with current sliotar suppliers.

When approval is granted, Greenfields is set to supply an approved sliotar that can be rebranded by other sanctioned suppliers. Every ball used in league and championship would have to be an approved ball with that core.

“This started out 10 years ago and it was all about regulation of the ball,” says Tipperary man Mullins.

“There were hundreds of different balls out there, all giving different results.

“There are a lot of issues, goalies scoring from puckouts, all those scenarios the GAA is trying to get rid of. That’s the priority for them.

“We produced a core and sliotar that is properly manufactured in an acceptable ethically approved environment.

“An app has been developed around that. So the referee or umpire or linespeople can scan the ball and it will go, yes I’m a real ball or no I’m not. Tá or Níl.

“That’s what the GAA wanted. Further development and testing led us down the road of digitally enhancing the ball.

“As a company we developed it, working closely with the GPA and their Super 11s game over the last few years. That was our platform for testing and our research and development.

“Last November in Citi Field in New York, we measured every penalty struck and we were able to measure speed, force and distance. And that was shown in real time on the scoreboard.

“Our next phase is to test and develop the full potential of the sliotar.”

That could include the ability to detect illegal handpasses in real time.

Hurling’s apparent clampdown on the handpass became one of the chief talking points of the Allianz League. On RTÉ’s League Sunday, Derek McGrath used slow motion footage to show how difficult it now is for referees to detect a throw, given how quick players’ hands have become and the minimal gap between hand and ball.

The smart ball could make that detection for the referee, Mullins says.

“That would be one or two development phases in the future. That part of the game is becoming very precise. A throw or a handpass, can you see the motion?

“There’s no doubt, 100% sure the ball could be used to detect that."

The question is, whether the GAA has an appetite to go down that road. The priority for now is making sure every ball used in inter-county games behaves the same and has been manufactured in an approved environment.

“At the minute they are only concerned with standardisation and ethical product sourcing.”

But eventually the new ball could also enable cheaper score detection systems, Mullins says.

“For Páirc Uí Chaoimh, or even the Cusack Parks, Walsh Parks of this world, the smaller county grounds, we have costed a boundary detection system at roughly €20,000-€30,000."

Greenfields is also working internationally on developing digital cores for cricket balls and baseballs. A partnership with Glamorgan cricket club in Cardiff has been established.

“Glamorgan coach Matthew Maynard is very much on board and very helpful to us.

“We are looking at developing our application to assist with spin, speed, and LBW.”

Headquartered in Kilkenny, with R&D and production carried out in Drogheda, the Covid-19 shutdown is creating obstacles for the company, Mullins admits.

“So much in this world has changed in the last month.

“Production is stopped everywhere now. Because of the logistics involved in getting the quantities sorted, all going well we are aiming to have the ball ready for the start of next year’s leagues and definitely for the championship next year, subject to the GAA timeline.

“The company is developing funding lines and investment to complete its development projects. And we’re confident as a company of achieving this, in the near future post Covid.”

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