NFL says it has tech to eliminate pylons and first-down markers

The NFL's popularity by the numbers
The NFL's popularity by the numbers

The NFL is experimenting with technology that could shape the future of football.

In the coming years, sensors could determine when a player is out of bounds or when the ball crosses the first-down or goal lines.

The league has already placed sensors in players' shoulder pads -- to deliver player speed and data to team statisticians.

But the league is looking into placing similar sensors in the ball itself, according to a video released by

"We're looking at a whole new future that largely centers around data as well as helping the game monitor statistics and the ball position on field, the down and distance that's required to get a first down or possibly when a touchdown is scored," said Bob Thurman, vice president of research and development at Wilson, the NFL's official football manufacturer, in the video.

Similar ball-chip technology has been used in World Cup soccer tournaments to determine whether a ball entered the goal.

In the NFL, it could mean the end of some decidedly old-school technology.

nfl pylon
NFL officials use orange pylons to determine if a touchdown was scored at the corner of the end zone.

Today, orange pylons are placed at the corners of the end zones -- if they're knocked down, the referees know to signal that a touchdown was scored. And down markers attached to 10-yard chains are used to figure out if the offense should be awarded a new set of downs.

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Still, the spot where the ball went down is determined by the officiating crew. Even with instant replay, figuring out the exact position of the ball when the ball-carrier's knee hit the turf is tricky.

"Looking to the future, maybe there's no longer any pylons and there's no longer any first down markers," said Eric Petrosinelli, general manager of Zebra Technologies, which partners with the NFL for in-game sensor tech.

nfl first down marker
New sensor technology could replace first down markers.

The NFL has not yet committed to any of the new ball-position technology for use during games.

But John Cave, head of football technology for the NFL, said that in five to ten years, computers might be able to go even further, determining whether a player had possession of the football prior to a fumble, or whether his foot was out of bounds. Some of the most difficult calls for officials to make involve figuring out whether a player ever had possession of the ball.

The NFL has already begun replacing some of its ancient technology with more modern innovations.

For example, it has equipped all of its boundaries with tiny cameras to assist with instant replay. The replay technology itself was upgraded from video tape and radio communications. All of that is now fed over the Internet.

During the preseason, coaches and players were able to test out instant replay directly from Microsoft (MSFT) Surface tablets on the sidelines.

The referees also viewed instant replay video on Surface tablets during the preseason. Currently, referees enter a hooded television screen in which they communicate with a video operator in NFL headquarters to play back the video.

The league said it is considering switching to tablet-controlled replay full time in the future. It also has begun testing virtual reality for player training, and it envisioned a future in which NFL games could be broadcast in VR.

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