Sport Engineering Masters Project with Sheffield Hallam University

Our world is changing faster than ever due to continuous advances in technology, leaving organisations with two options: adapt to change or lead through innovation.

FIFA made a clear statement of intent at this year’s 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia this summer by implementing Goal-Line Technology (GLT); Video Assistant Referee (VAR); Electronic Performance and Tracking Systems (EPTS); as well as a medical review application and a communication system, which allowed analysts and medical staff in the stands to communicate with the team sitting pitch-side. The implementation of these technologies and the thousands of hours of people power that was required to ensure that it was done correctly offers a clear statement by FIFA of their commitment to lead through innovation.

While there are several definitions for innovation, most of them agree on one key aspect: it is an iterative process and is highly dependent on exhaustive research to explore, test and validate or reject ideas. As a result, FIFA has been working with universities and educational institutes to help answer some of the biggest research questions in football and is always looking for new ways to collaborate.

This year marks the first year, which FIFA has become the industry partner for a Master’s thesis at the Centre for Sport Engineering Research (CSER) at Sheffield Hallam University. FIFA was interested in investigating new ways to assess a football’s aerodynamic stability, and Diego A. Cerna Soto from Peru was selected to conduct this research. In order to do this, the aerodynamics of table tennis balls were assessed with the intention to apply the learnings to a follow up study in the 2018/19 academic year.

The project started by developing a free fall pilot test where three different ball types (smooth, rough and half rough) were dropped from three different heights: 2, 2.5 and 3 meters – 20 drops per ball type and height combination. An arrangement composed of carbon paper and sandpaper was used as a method to register ball impact location and a high-speed video camera was used to detect ball spin.

Results between the three different ball types were compared and it was found that rough balls had a more consistent final position suggesting that this ball type is more stable during its flight, however, more time and effort would be needed for data collection to make stronger conclusions. In addition, the results found that 80% of drops included undesired ball spin. It was decided that a vertical wind tunnel could be used to have greater control over ball spin, airflow speed and airflow homogeneity.

As a result, a modifiable vertical wind tunnel was designed and manufactured which allowed the impact of different features commonly used in wind tunnels – bell mouth and flow straighteners – to be varied and their impact on the airflow homogeneity to be assessed. The airflow behavior within the vertical wind tunnel was qualitatively assessed using a high-speed video camera and quantitatively assessed using the Pitot tube method to determine flow velocity at specific locations along the tube. From these values important design information was found regarding the importance of the bell mouth, installed at the air intake, and that optimising the design allowed for flow homogeneity to be kept within a range of 4.3% variation near the walls suggesting that the design configuration could be scalable for footballs.

The research will continue this year with the aim to create a vertical wind tunnel where design can be optimised to ensure good airflow homogeneity and spin control, as well as the size modified to accommodate the drop of a football. This is part of the greater project of investigating new low cost ways to assess a football’s aerodynamic stability. This project gives us the possibility to add a test method to our current quality programme, which allows FIFA the possibility of excluding footballs, which fly inconsistently from the elite game. In addition, this project marks a first step in an engagement strategy, where FIFA provides real life problems and experience opportunities for students worldwide.

Model of a modifiable vertical wind tunnel