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Bucs, NFL use new technology to distance safely during training camp

A company that specializes in sports-performance data pivoted to creating wearable sensors that will tell players and staff when they're too close to one another.

As the Bucs return to their team facility en masse for the first time since March for the beginning of training camp, they will be greeted by a new normal. Accustomed to bonding and being together during the preseason, they will be told to keep their distance and be reminded when they don’t.

Each player, coach and staff member will wear a radio frequency-based tracking device to warn them when they are too close to each other. The device, called SafeZone, is made by German-based company Kinexon, which is using the same sports-performance technology used to collect data on things such as the distance a player has traveled, his acceleration, his top speed, his heart rate and body temperature to help businesses and sports restart during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve got my (device) on right now,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said earlier this week, showing the device attached to a lanyard worn around his neck. “It tells me how close I am to anybody and is tracking. We’ve all got them. I think you’ve got to be smart. You’re not going to find me out at any of my favorite restaurants or bars, so you’re welcome to come over to the house. That’s about the only place I’ll be — in the office and in the house. You’ve got to be as safe as possible. It’s going to take a lot of discipline.”

The Bucs and other NFL teams are using Kinexon SafeZone ultra-wideband technology to practice safe social distancing as players and coaches return to the facility for training camp. This SafeTag can be worn as either a watch or around the neck on a lanyard. [ Kinexon ]

The NFL will be using SafeZone tags not only inside team facilities to help with social distancing, but also for contact tracing in case a player or staff member gets infected. And because football can’t be played without contact, players will wear the devices on the field in case contact tracing is needed. The league wants all team personnel to wear them during all team activities at the team facility and during team travel.

Kinexon worked with several sports leagues to provide performance data, but once the pandemic hit it pivoted to designing a product using the same hardware to determine proximity of sensors in the tags. It took just 3½ weeks to create a prototype and, after testing, the SafeZone tags helped the European Soccer League resume play. It is now being used inside the NBA bubble in Orlando.

“Before we were tracking every movement,” said Kinexon CEO Medhi Bentanfous. “... The underlying data was already there. So it was basically changing the algorithm to just measure the proximity and just measure the distance between two sensors. … We already had experience with this type of information, and the hardware was already available.”

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Inside the complex, the device can be worn as a watch or around the neck as Arians does. When a person is within 8 feet of another, the green light turns yellow. When someone approaches within 6 feet, it turns red, then emits an alarm sound after a few seconds.

The device utilizes ultra-wideband technology rather than GPS because it is more precise and reliable indoors. It allows data to be accurate within 3 to 4 inches, compared to GPS, which is accurate within 1 or 2 feet — a big difference when it comes to social distancing. Also, it does not collect location data, only proximity data.

“Yeah, those things are pretty handy, actually,” said Bucs rookie offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs. “We have the Tier 1 and Tier 2 people in the building, and they’ll blink red a bunch if you’re too close to someone and if two Tier 1 people are too close to each other, it will vibrate. So it’s pretty handy. I think we’re doing everything we can to make sure everyone’s safe and healthy.”

Related: Running back LeSean McCoy joins Bucs, agrees to one-year deal

On the field, players will wear the device as part of their equipment and it will identify close in-game contact between players and staff. In the case of an infection, the league will use that data for contact tracing through IQVIA, an independent third-party company that works with the NFL on health and safety-related data. The information collected will help the league identify and properly quarantine a player or club personnel member who has come in contact with an infected person.

“Contact tracing is an important part of any strategy to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and the NFL’s strategy is no exception,” said Dr. Dev. Anderson, an associate professor in the division of infectious diseases and department of medicine at Duke University who is one of the league and player’s union’s medical experts.

“The NFL’s prevention protocols contain many layers and multiple interventions, but they won’t reduce the risk of COVID-19 to zero. If and when an infection occurs, prompt and detailed contact tracing can identify additional personnel who may have been exposed and determine if additional testing or quarantine is required.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieInTheYard.