What is a Robot Umpire?

Being a referee and umpire is considered two of the most challenging jobs in the world, especially if you are officiating an important game in basketball, soccer, and any other sport that requires umpires and referees. In crucial games or series like the NBA Finals and the FIFA World Cup, one mistake from the referee or umpire can change the course of the game. Moreover, mistakes from the umpire can result in backlash and criticism from fans, which could have a negative impact on the sport.

While human umpires have been there for hundreds of years, many robotics companies are trying to innovate in sports officiating by producing robots that are able to make accurate and correct decisions when it comes to giving fouls and penalties. With robot umpires, we may see an improvement in how sports are played. What are robot umpires, and are they really better than human umpires? We will find out as we get some details about umpires and robotics.

What is an Umpire?

robot pointing a finger

Before we get into how robotics can help in sports, let us first discuss the duties and responsibilities of an umpire. The umpire is an official that normally enforces the rules of a specific sport and makes decisions when it comes to giving fouls, penalties, and ejections.

The name “umpire” came from the Old French word “nonper,” which is supposed to be a title given to a person responsible for being an arbiter between two people that are in dispute. The “umpire” title is utilized in different sports, although there are some that call officiators “referees.”

Umpires in Different Sports

There are various sports that have single or multiple umpires in a game. Here is a list of some popular sports that have umpires.

  • Baseball – in baseball, there is a head umpire or plate umpire that handles calling balls and strikes behind the plate. But, because of how big the baseball field is, the head umpire would need to have one or more field umpires that will focus on making calls on different parts of the field.
  • Softball – softball has similar rules to baseball when it comes to having a head umpire and field umpires. However, this sport usually has fewer field umpires on the field.
  • Cricket – cricket would have two on-field umpires that enforce the rules and decide on the scoring in the game. While it is more common two see two umpires in cricket, there may be some games where a third umpire is involved.
  • Field Hockey – much like in cricket, field hockey has two umpires that control the match. Whenever they have different calls, they would often need to talk to each other before making a final decision on the call.
  • Tennis – tennis is arguably where the umpire is popular and prominent, as he or she is commonly sitting on a high chair that will enable the umpire to have a better view of the court. To help the umpire to make better calls, there will be linesmen on each side of the court that will monitor if the ball went out of the line on the tennis court.

Robot Umpires

Robot umpires are currently in development to be utilized in different sports in the future. One of the first tested “robot umpires” is the Automated Ball-Strike System, which is focused on giving more accurate calls compared to a human umpire. This system, which is also called by its acronym ABS, was first tested in 2019 through the collaboration of Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (ALPB). While the system is designed to make accurate calls, it is not intended to be a replacement for human umpires but rather a “partner” that will help umpires make better and faster decisions on the field.

While 2019 was a fulfilling year for the testers and creators of the ABS, as they have concluded that the system is able to get efficient results and faster response in a baseball game. However, because of the pandemic that occurred in 2020, the testing process of the ABS was put on hold for the entire 2020-2021 season. Fortunately, in the next season, the MLB and ALPB resumed testing for the ABS so that final tests will be completed, and they will be able to officially utilize the system in bigger or more important games sooner rather than later.

Even though robot umpires are still not fully developed as of 2021, and we may not see them in action yet in some of the biggest events in MLB like the World Series, it is already given that we will see them more soon as robotics get more accessible to everyone. In the future, we will still have human umpires and referees, but they will be accompanied by robots that will greatly benefit them from making more accurate decisions faster.