Special Olympics World Games Tracks Athletes via the IoT

The system, provided by Sigfox and its local operator iWire, located four missing athletes during the course of the Abu Dhabi event—not only at the stadium but around the city—each time within less than 30 minutes.
Published: May 30, 2019

This spring, special-needs athletes and their trainers and families visited Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, representing countries across the world, as part of the 2019 Special Olympics World Games. This year, these delegations took advantage of Internet of Things (IoT) technology to ensure that participants could be easily located no matter where they were.

Nearly 10,000 people wore IoT-based tracking devices provided by the Special Olympics organizers. They could press a button on the custom-made tracker if they required help, and they would then be located in real time, while organizers could also locate anyone who may have gone missing.

The solution employed Sigfox wireless 0G connectivity at the Zayed Sports City Stadium, and at other sites where the games took place, and also throughout the United Arab Emirates, to transmit the location data. It also utilized data from the public Wi-Fi system to better pinpoint each individual’s location. iWire Connect, a Sigfox Operator for the UAE, provided the solution using wireless tracker devices made by LITE-ON Technology Corp.

The Special Olympics games took place in March, with 7,500 athletes participating at the 60,000-seat stadium. Long before the athletes began arriving, the organizers were investigating ways in which technology could ensure the safety and well-being of each participant, as well as 3,000 coaches, who would be visiting the city from 200 nations, according to Raouti Chehih, Sigfox’s chief adoption officer. That meant gaining real-time location data regarding every individual, in case someone ended up looking for one of them. The system, in fact, located four missing athletes during the event, each within less than 20 minutes.

The challenge was to manage such a large number of people, Chehih says, many of whom have intellectual disabilities. Sigfox began working with iWire Connect and the Special Olympics organizers to create a solution toward the end of 2018. The first phase for iWire and Sigfox was to identify the organizers’ needs, especially when it came to serving a special-needs community. “We wanted to understand their challenges and provide a usable solution,” he states.

The athletes and coaches were expected to stay in and travel throughout the city, so the event needed a way to be able to find them if they were far from the stadium. Sigfox co-designed the tracker with LITE-ON so that it could enable location functionality even if the tracker traveled around the city. The UAE already has a Sigfox network in place across the country, but more Sigfox gateways were added to provide greater granularity for this solution in the UAE and at the sports venues.

As each athlete or other delegation member checked in for the event, a program manager looked up that individual’s details in the event software, then linked the unique ID on the tracker to that person. The athlete or trainer then simply wore the tracker all day, every day, around his or her neck on a lanyard.

The LITE-ON tracker has several unique features. Each tracker comes with a Sigfox transponder, as well as a Wi-Fi-based device and battery. The tracker itself stores a unique identifier that is linked to a particular individual. It also comes with an alert button that users can press if they require emergency assistance. The tracker badge measures about 7 millimeters (0.27 inch) in thickness.

The tracker used the Wi-Fi functionality to collect the media access control (MAC) address of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots, explains Florian Splendido, the head of Sigfox IoT Agency, then forwarded that MAC address, along with its own unique ID number, to the cloud-based Sigfox software. “Our cloud converts these MAC addresses into coordinates and radius,” Splendido says. Sigfox’s partner, technology provider HERE Technologies, supplied the MAC address conversion services.

Location data could be viewed on a dashboard in the iWire Connect software. The Special Olympics organizers had full access to the system, so they could view the locations of individuals in real time, as well as seek a specific person or be alerted if an athlete pressed the tracker’s emergency button. Each country’s delegation had access to the platform as well, but they were limited to viewing the locations of their own athletes. In that way, they could locate individuals without requiring assistance.

There were technical challenges that involved the sheer number of participants, the wide coverage area and the duration of the event. The system needed to continue operating at all hours throughout the one-week event, as well as during multiple days beforehand and afterwards. Therefore, the trackers were built to ensure the batteries could operate for such an extended span of time.

To reduce power consumption, each tracker went into battery-optimization mode—which entailed changing the frequency of messages from every 10 minutes to every hour—when it was not moving. However, at any given time, organizers could wake up the badge by sending a Sigfox transmission to prompt a response. That might be necessary, for instance, if they sought the real-time location of a specific user.

The system utilized low power due to the limited amount of data being sent, Chehih reports. In fact, each tracker sent 12 bytes of data and was not designed to include other information that could consume extra power, such as sensor data or voice capabilities. In addition, some of the cars and trucks used by event personnel were equipped with a tracker to ensure they could be located at any time. In the future, Splendido says, organizers could utilize the location data for historical proposes to optimize future events, but that feature was not employed in this case.

For the Special Olympics event, Chehih reports, the advantage of using Sigfox’s network was that “It’s a universal network—no roaming, seamless, global, reliable and low power consumption.” He adds that it was relatively affordable, and that it required little training on the part of event organizers for the athletes wearing the trackers. “That’s the strength of Sigfox—it’s very easy to use.” Sigfox’s technology, he says, is being used worldwide for everything from tracking a rhinoceros to monitoring a pallet or container. “We don’t think of IoT as something that’s difficult or expensive to deploy. We think there are lots of problems that can be solved with very simple solutions using our network.”

The event took place on Mar. 14-21, and the technology team completed the design and deployment within three months before the start date. Sigfox is now in discussions with other event organizers to replicate and customize this solution, Splendido says. The company recently released a new tracker solution known as the Sigfox Bubble for proximity detection indoors or outdoors.