Smart stadiums are a strategy among all of the biggest sports clubs in the world. These offer a reinvention of the sporting spectacle that is essentially based on the personalisation of the experience. It was the San Francisco 49ers stadium, in the heart of Silicon Valley, that set the ball in motion for a major renovation of the most important stadiums by implementing connectivity with Wi-Fi and 4G networks for its 70,000 spectators. Liverpool’s new Anfield will be one of the first stadiums to implement Artificial Intelligence for the management of its terraces. Atlético Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano is considered a ‘smart mini-city’ with its 1,600 Wi-Fi access points, 1,000 kilometres of fibre and 100% LED lighting, just like the Estudiantes de la Plata stadium in Buenos Aires. For the Qatar World Cup, the stadiums are also planned to be equipped with advanced intelligence systems. 5G is another of the great goals, in order to provide the spectator with an Augmented Reality experience and access to Virtual Reality.
This is a key chapter in the history of sport. For more than a hundred years, the only innovation introduced to stadiums had been the elimination of standing terraces. Now, the challenge for new venues is to accommodate a new breed of fan: a hyper-connected supporter who will share his experience in the stadium and requires it to have the best technological features.
In this new generation of venues, apart from entertainment-related services, sensors can be used to monitor everything from spectator behaviour to the entire technical management of the stadium, in other words, real-time coordination through IoT of all movements. From vehicle parking to seating, from the nearest entrances and service points to ordering catering products or going to collect them, stadiums are being upgraded in order to optimise every trip made by the spectator, making each journey faster and more comfortable, in short, improving their experience. In addition, site management is to be improved with preventive maintenance, which will reduce incidents and costs.
However, the most important thing in leisure facilities of this size is safety. Before developing these other activities, the safety of the thousands of spectators needs to be guaranteed, which includes dealing with crowding in corridors to clashes between rival fans, and even extreme situations such as fires and terrorist threats. A facility that receives thousands of people has to be ready for any circumstance.
The Camp Nou, the FC Barcelona stadium and the biggest in Europe, is still in the process of being remodelled. When fans return to their seats after the pandemic, the club will face the double challenge of continuing with the work and ensuring the safety of spectators. As a consequence of the coronavirus, this means complying with all the regulations and protocols indicated by the Spanish league, UEFA and the health authorities, and which are constantly changing. All this could imply restrictions on the capacity of different areas of the stadium, which could cause crowding at gates and entrances.
FC Barcelona has several plans in place to optimise operational management and use technology in the stadium to prevent such issues. The most prominent is IoTwins, a programme that collects data from sensors and other IoT devices to generate a digital twin of the stadium. A large number of current and historical data sources are being incorporated on fan behaviour, from interest generated in the build-up to a match, to mobility information and the use of in-game services and telecommunications.
Conditions such as the team’s position in each competition, the weather, mobility in the city of Barcelona and so on are also taken into account to generate, through data science techniques, simulations of multiple possible scenarios on the basis of which fan behaviour can be modelled in order to select the most likely patterns, and thereby obtain predictive data-based models that can be used to act preventively. These models are always based on fully anonymised data and are optimised through constant training and updates using dedicated machine-learning Artificial Intelligence techniques. Complex models with large amounts of data are being developed using the Mare Nostrum supercomputer operated by the Barcelona Supercomputing Center team as part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 R&D funding programme.
The patterns and predictive models obtained and the automation processes through the connected use of devices (IoT), will also take the optimisation of stadium control to another level. With all points of the ground operating at the same time, gate by gate and turnstile by turnstile, thus achieving maximum efficiency in terms of fan security management from entrance to seat and also when vacating the venue including, in cases of emergency, the optimal evacuation pathways.
Fan behaviour patterns are complex as they can vary depending on different profiles. Therefore, the models take into account the prospect of different types of spectator, such as distinguishing between the behaviour of one-time visitors, tourists, and regular fans, such as season ticket holders, whose actions are very different. Other relevant factors are also analysed, such as attendance in groups and different age ranges.
Simulations will make it possible to establish profiles of the types of spectators, always without using personal data, specifying different possible scenarios inside and outside the ground. In the area outside the stadium, security staff will need to anticipate the frequency and length of the queues that could potentially form, both due to crowding and possible turnstile blockages. Issues that could be solved, for example, include more efficiently reassigning gates to spectators or arranging for fans to enter in different time slots to eliminate queues, thus allowing spectators to enjoy the full experience including the additional services available before and after the game.
Once inside, there are other needs such as optimally determining where signs and operators should be located, optimising pathways to avoid long or cumbersome journeys that can lead to unnecessary crowding, an aspect that will determine the location of the different consumer services and the number of points of sale, which mainly means those dedicated to food and merchandising.
For emergency situations, the optimisation of emergency exits and evacuation plans are especially important. The Camp Nou differs from many stadiums due to its capacity and its location in the city centre, where an uncontrolled evacuation could collapse the surrounding area and hinder the arrival of emergency services. Although it is something that FC Barcelona works on regularly and does so in coordination with the local security and emergency forces, having a digital twin of the stadium such as IoTwins will be a very powerful tool to optimise scenario planning, test protocols and prepare different alternatives for clearing the stadium in cases of emergency, whether staggered or fast-track and either for part of the stadium or in its entirety, but these operations will always be undertaken in a planned and controlled manner.
Emergency plans have been in place for years, but it should be noted that as IoTwins evolves, the system itself could anticipate and solve emergencies, or propose the most effective option for each unforeseen scenario, thus making it possible to offer an immediate response. In turn, IoTwins can also be the basis for the management of personalised communications to fans and stadium operators.
Ultimately, it will be the basis for testing or training safety and security protocols and improving their effectiveness, both in the current stadium and in simulated versions with the projected work on the future stadium in progress or completed, the premise being that it is better to be proactive than reactive when it comes to ensuring the safety of thousands of people.
Regarding the security of the facilities and installations themselves, predictive analytics and usage simulations are also useful for optimising energy consumption and are already widely used in the industry to anticipate machine breakdowns. The same function is perfectly transferable to stadiums and other similar venues that, in addition to holding sports activities, are also creating patterns for concerts, cultural or trade events and other activities, and even, given the current circumstances, the possibility of using the Camp Nou to perform mass vaccinations against Covid-19.
The IoTwins project is still at an experimental phase, but as good results start coming in, its implementation will be promoted in all types of European venues and spaces.
A safe and functional environment is the basis on which any activity in any stadium or other venue needs to be conducted, and will be essential for any sporting or commercial purpose. IoTwins will mean a qualitative leap forward in the management of security teams and operations, and will improve the experience for fans.
This article reflects only the author’s view and that the Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.
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