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Smart dummies: How robotic tackling tech is transforming football practice

Robots frequently step into the breach to carry out jobs that humans once performed. But this isn’t usually because humans have been banned from doing the job.

“Back in 2010, the head football coach at Dartmouth College decided to completely eliminate tackling for practice,” Ryan McManus, director of sales and marketing at a Vermont-based company called MVP Robotics, told Digital Trends. “It was relatively controversial at the time, since it’s a pretty important skill that has to be practiced, especially at the Division 1 level. They were trying to figure out a safer way to simulate a game scenario, but no one knew exactly how to do it.”

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The obvious replacement for human bodies to tackle was stationary foam soft pads, which can greatly reduce the number of abrasions, lacerations, and — perhaps most importantly — concussions that can take place in practice. But pads aren’t the most realistic of stand-ins for human players, most notably because they don’t move. The problem was handed over to a group of engineering students to have a go at.

USA Football MVP Robotics
Adam Pintar/USA Football

“No one’s ever standing still in a game,” McManus continued. “There was this idea that, if we could take the old traditional foam dummy, that’s been the same for over 100 years, and put it on a remote control car or something, that would be awesome.”

The group worked on the problem, and came up with a prototype that was, in essence, a tackle pad on a movable robot platform — a Roomba with an athletics scholarship. The prototype wasn’t perfect. Most prototypes never are. “It had a lot of duct tape on it, it fell apart after every single tackle,” McManus recalled.

But the core idea was there. If only someone could build a more solid, ruggedized version of the tackle-bot, they might have a decent business, they thought. The group decided that “someone” should be them. MVP Robotics was born.

Hit of the week

As it turns out, Dartmouth’s football coach, Buddy Teevens, wasn’t the only person worried about the dangers of concussions. Traumatic brain injuries have, for too long, been an accepted part of sports like football. One 2017 study, which examined the brains of deceased gridiron football players, found that 99% of tested brains of NFL players, 91% of brain of college football players, 64% of semiprofessional players, and 21% of high school football players had various stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease linked with repeated blows to the head.

Effects of CTE can range from behavioral problems to mood-related disorders. In 2017, Aaron Hernandez, a former professional football player and convicted murderer, committed suicide while serving a prison sentence. His family donated his brain to Boston University’s CTE Center. They concluded that Hernandez had stage 3 CTE, which the researchers said they had never seen in a brain younger than 46 years old. Hernandez committed suicide at the age of 27.

Concussions are extremely difficult to eliminate altogether in physical sports — although materials science research into new types of helmets can help. But these sports can be shifted to lessen the prevalence of such injuries. That’s easier said than done in an athletic endeavor where the brain-rattling “hit of the week” celebration is an anticipated part of the action. However, there are scenarios in which it can be dialed back — with concussions suffered during practices being a big one. According to a recent study, published in JAMA Neurology, around 72% of concussions the researchers reviewed over five college football seasons occurred during practice. Altering this would be a literal game-changer.

MVP Robotics has been in the right place at the right time to help. Its robotic solution — which looks a bit like a motorized, inflatable buoy — is now used by half the teams in the NFL, more than 50 colleges, and over 150 high schools. “It’s been quite a run,” said McManus, whose own career as a Division 1 student football player at Dartmouth, was ended due to injury, including a couple of nasty concussions.

At Dartmouth, specifically, concussions were reduced by 58% in the two years after introducing MVP Robotics’ smart solutions.

Enter the Sprint

The company’s newest unit, the $3,450 Sprint, weighs 160 pounds, the majority of which is in the base of the unit. It’s remote controlled (although some research is being carried out to explore autonomous or preprogrammed routines for future iterations), can turn on a dime, and is able to travel effectively on grass and turf at speeds of up to 16 miles per hour, or about the same speed that an athlete might run on the field.

“After you tackle it, it’ll pop back up and self right on its own,” McManus said. “It also gives that resistance of tackling another player in terms of the weight, because you don’t want it to just be an inflatable balloon with no resistance at all. That’s not realistic, and it also provides some danger that you could go right through it if you’re hitting it hard. You could end up hitting the ground at higher speeds than you normally would.”

mvp robotics pedestrian test drive
MVP Robotics

Interestingly, football isn’t the only place where the robots are finding work. Some of it is in other sports, such as rugby, but there are some more unusual uses as well. Not too long after launching, for example, the team was approached by an autonomous car company interested in getting their hands on some units.

“They’re using it as a pedestrian,” he said. “So if their car hits it, it’s hitting a soft foam pad. Because you don’t want to be using real people to, you know, make sure that the technology is working the way that it [should be.]”

There’s still more work to be done by companies like MVP Robotics when it comes to making sports like football as safe as they canbe . For now, though, they’ve certainly taken big strides (or, at least, big wheeled movements) to help.

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