From drones to virtual reality: how golf is now a favorite testing ground for new technology

A 5G-enabled drone flies over the track during the recent Open de España in Madrid.

Image: European Tour

Drones, digital twins and virtual reality applications aren’t the sort of gear you’d normally associate with golf, but those are exactly the tools being tested right now on the sport’s European Tour.

At the recent Open de España in Madrid, Michael Cole, CTO of the European Tour and Ryder Cup, and his team teamed up with telecommunications giant Telefónica to test how drones can be used to deliver better images and improve the quality of TV broadcasts. . They tested a tethered and a roaming drone, and both were connected via 5G.

“Embedding that into our backend processes was part of the use case we were testing,” Cole says. “We wanted to see how we could introduce the end-to-end capabilities of drones into our work processes and our manufacturing engineering workflow.”

Cole’s team pioneered a new emerging use case at the BMW PGA Championship in Wentworth, England, earlier this year. Using a combination of virtual and augmented techniques, the team built what he calls a digital twin on a gaming technology platform.

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They created a full display of play from other holes on the scoreboard at the 18th green. This digital animation showed ball strikes, ball positions and player-to-player comparisons. Cole says this animation will allow spectators to see what’s happening around the track, and he’s eager to explore how it could be expanded by partnering with other tech companies.

“This was a proof of concept, so we worked with our developers. But of course we want to work with other technology partners to further develop that concept in the future,” he says.

The innovations on the European Tour route are not limited to drones and virtual reality. Cole says his organization is working with partners in a range of groundbreaking digital areas, including big data and mobility.

Picture an innovation lab and you probably don’t think of the slow greens of golf, but that’s exactly where more and more IT companies are testing their new technologies.

Cole believes that these innovative proof-of-concepts will bring great benefits to the players and fans of the sport, but also provide a showcase for the potential application of digital technology in other sectors.

“We are the ultimate innovation platform for organizations to collaborate with and they can use our platform to try out new technologies,” he tells ZDNet.

Analyst Gartner says an innovation lab can drive digital transformation initiatives by streamlining the process from idea generation to implementation — and says the lab is an ideal place to connect with external technology partners.

Cole says the way the European Tour is set up and played makes it the perfect testing ground for digital innovation.

Each of the tour’s more than 40 events in 31 countries takes place annually in a short space of time. Cole says the tech setup at each of these locations is a temporary smart city, where connectivity, cloud-based services and sensors are critical to operations.

Proof of concepts can be brought to these temporary, technology-assisted playing fields, set up, run, and then quickly scaled up or down.

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Cole: “We are the ultimate innovation platform.”

Image: European Tour

Add to that the massive global golf audience and the 700,000 data points Cole and his colleagues collect from players at each tournament – and the result is a sport that has become the place to test new ideas.

“We can test capabilities in a golf tournament for four days in a very demonstrable way,” he says. “In addition, I think there are important lessons that we can share in the pan industry because we can showcase emerging technologies in a way that becomes very real and very authentic.”

Blue-chip tech partners, such as Tata, Zoom, Capgemini and others, are already helping the European Tour test its innovative ideas. Cole expects other companies to join them soon.

“We have more technology partners on board than at any time in our history, and possibly more than any other sports rights holder — with more to come, demonstrating the change in reputation of the critical role technology plays in golf,” he says. .

Rather than being seen as a service to the business, as in the past, technology is now seen as a potential generator of money.

“Traditionally, everyone thought of the technology department as a cost center. It was all about overhead; it was all about cost. Now I run a P&L – and we’re creating value for the organization,” he says.

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Cole says the key to generating value is taking full advantage of the vast amount of data his IT organization collects.

“We now collect more than seven times as much data as before. That may not sound like much, but that’s every stroke of every player in real time. And that’s a real step forward for us in terms of our evolution.”

Mobile technology is at the forefront of delivering new data-driven services to the sport’s key stakeholders, Cole said.

By gaining real-time insights into player performance and providing it to fans around the court quickly via mobile devices, the IT team can help improve the quality of customer experiences.

Cole says the shift to data-driven mobility is a big change in the sport, not even a few years ago when he last spoke to ZDNet.

“Cell phones were frankly still frowned upon when they were brought into the tournament arena,” he says. “Now they are an essential asset for any spectator – they control access, they control the range of services we offer and they are a valuable source of content.”

That’s why the European Tour works with IT companies to test new ideas in a range of emerging areas. It’s a similar story at The R&A, which is both the governing body of golf and the organizer of The Open.

CTO Steve Otto says his organization is working closely with technology partner NTT Data to explore how innovation can help improve the sport’s governance, administration and operations.

“Technology is endemic to the whole way golf is played,” he says. “We’re constantly looking to get more and more out of data and how its role is evolving in sport. In terms of where the game is going, I think it’s just about creating more and more knowledge.”

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Back on the European Tour, Cole’s team continues to explore a range of other technologies, including cloud-based services, 5G connectivity to increase operational efficiency, and the use of the Internet of Things and sensors to monitor and monitor track conditions. such as weather conditions and decontamination stations.

The overarching message is simple: more innovation is coming: “We need to keep looking at things holistically. Technology moves so fast that it’s very difficult to predict anything with certainty,” he says.

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