Cloud giving sports teams the competitive edge

The Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire chronicles a sprinter’s battle with prejudices, including the patrician notion that a paid coach betrays the ideals of amateurism. In the end the athlete Harold Abrahams sticks with his pro coach and wins the hundred-yards dash at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Today the ideals are inverted. Sporting teams pride themselves on obsessive preparation. Cost no object. The cloud is the latest tool offering an edge.

Video analysis is routine. When non-league side Lincoln City made it to the quarter finals of the FA Cup they were relying on video footage, made available through the Hudl cloud-based platform, designed for sports teams. Players can watch footage of rivals on a smartphone before a game or get a personalised breakdown of their own performances.

Golf’s PGA tour works with Microsoft’s cloud division on all aspects of its operation. The tour is organised using cloud tools, and a fan app offers player shot analysis, such as driving distance and putting accuracy, gleaned via volunteers with lasers on the course.

An extraordinary example

Perhaps the extraordinary example of technology taking over a sport is yachting. The British entry in this year’s America’s Cup has a £100-million budget. The result is a carbon fibre catamaran capable of 60 miles an hour.

Winning the America’s Cup is staggeringly difficult and the rise of technology has made it even harder. A British team lost the opening encounter in 1851 and then spent a hundred years losing to the Americans. The cup was opened to international clubs and Aussie tycoon Alan Bond won in 1983. The American team is currently funded by Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle and ranked the world’s seventh-richest person. He pioneered computer-aided design in refining boats for competition.

British fans have two reasons to be optimistic. The first is the leadership of Sir Ben Ainslie, the most-decorated sports sailor of all time with four Olympic golds. During the last America’s Cup, Oracle Team USA lagged the New Zealander challengers by eight races to one. Sir Ben was drafted in as replacement tactician and led Oracle to eight successive wins to claim the Auld Mug.

By transmitting performance data through the cloud, it will be possible to perform analysis and testing immediately

The second is the sheer computing power harnessed by Land Rover Ben Ainslie Racing. Borrowing from Formula One, the team has at every stage used computer-aided design, matched with cloud storage and processing. The New York Stock Exchange-listed EMC Corporation is delivering cloud storage. BT is providing two full-time software engineers to manage the data hub.

BT is also working on a “virtual chase boat” project, which provides a live feed for video, audio and telemetry back to the base in Bermuda using high-grade Royal Navy 4G technology. Data is then sent via an onward link using BT’s IP Connect network to mission control in Portsmouth. All data received from the boats during training and racing is injected into the data hub to enable performance analysis and review – this equals about 16 gigabytes of uncompressed data each day.

By transmitting performance data through the cloud, it will be possible to perform analysis and testing immediately. Previous approaches used by America’s Cup teams took hours, usually leading to a wait until the following morning for changes to be made.

During testing, the team used artificial intelligence and machine-learning to track 350 data points on the boat. The carbon fibre yacht has been refined multiple times, including as a full-scale mock-up, but mostly using computer-aided engineering supplied by CD-Adapco and innovation partner Land Rover. On board there are telemetry systems, as well as eight high-definition video cameras. A technology innovation group, led by PA Consulting, is co-ordinating the wide variety of experts needed to bring all design elements together.