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RFID Powers Smart Balls, Luggage Tags

Kookaburra's Smart Balls with SportCor technology using BLE transmissions, as well as British Airways' RFID-enabled luggage tags, are leveraging a wireless transmission solution from Powercast that powers devices, eliminating the need for USB-cabled recharging or, in some cases, batteries.
By Claire Swedberg
Jan 21, 2020

Several technology companies are leveraging radio frequency identification not only to transmit data, but also to power their devices, thereby ensuring consistent performance from sensor-using systems designed to make it easier to find and manage products and assets. Smart sports ball company SportCor has sold its electronics to cricket ball manufacturer Kookaburra and is marketing the product for balls used in a variety of other sports around the world.

The SportCor system employs sensors to capture data regarding a ball's location and performance, with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to transmit data back to a smartphone or gateway device. RF plays its own role in the system by powering the device wirelessly, employing the same 2.4 GHz antenna that transmits the Bluetooth signal. The RF-based powering system is provided by Powercast. Thus far, Powercast is the first company to deploy solutions and products that enable RF wireless power, says John Macho, the firm's product manager.

Powercast's John Macho
Throughout the past three years, SportCor has developed an embeddable smart electronics core that consists of sensors, as well as the related electronics to transmit that sensor data to a BLE beacon device in a gateway or phone. Kookaburra is building the electronics into its smart cricket balls to provide cricket players and coaches with intelligence, such as speed, distance, force, position and spin.

SportCor was founded to create a technology-based solution to find missing golf balls for golfers, says Ben Tattersfield, SportCor's founder and head of innovation. When Tattersfield plays golf, he says, he often loses balls. "I wanted to create a golf ball I could track with my phone," he states. He built a prototype of a ball that could sustain the blows of a club swing and be located via GPS and BLE transmissions. The golf industry didn't show interest in the product, however, since lost golf balls drive sales for companies that make replacements. But companies in other markets were more intrigued, and SportCor began working with Kookaburra and other ball manufacturers. "We like to partner up with existing sport equipment brands."

SportCor's Ben Tattersfield
Kookaburra's field hockey and cricket balls are used worldwide. The company recently released its latest ball with intelligence, which can track data about how it is being played for training or gameplay purposes. The SportCor unit built inside the ball includes accelerometers and other sensors so that it can collect information regarding how it is being played—the speed at which it is hit, how much it spins and how fast it moves. The ball then transmits this data via Bluetooth to a base station or phone, which forwards the information to the cloud.

To capture and forward data, the Smart Ball requires a standard, rechargeable lithium battery. However, Tattersfield says, "We can't have a USB port on the side of the ball," so the company looked into wireless charging. One challenge involves getting the charging transmission into the center of a ball, using the same antenna utilized for transmission and a small Powercast RF receiver. In this way, the system won't impact the ball's size or movement.

Thus, the core needed to receive a recharging transmission at 2.4 GHz, which enables a minimally sized antenna in comparison to other frequencies. "Another challenge was to keep the size as small as possible," Macho says. Powercast provided engineering-as-a-service to modify the system to enable the 2.4 GHz transmission, while the receiver converts the power to DC in order to recharge the battery. Powercast began working with SportCor in the fall of 2018, and a prototype was developed last year.

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