AI News, Tackle This: Football’s Newest Most Valuable Player Is a Robot

Tackle This: Football’s Newest Most Valuable Player Is a Robot

A robotic tackling dummy created by Dartmouth College engineering students could turn out to be the most valuable player on the field this football season.

Their remote-controlled foam robot reaches a top speed of 32 kilometers per hour (the fastest NFL playerstop out at 40 km/h), can tough it out in extreme Minnesota winters and Florida heat waves, and has circuits robust enough to withstand thousands of repeated blows.

How a Robot Football Player Will Prevent Concussions

During practices, American football coaches typically stay on the sidelines, grim-faced, as they order their players through drills.

The MVP, or Mobile Virtual Player, was designed to take precisely this kind of hit—the sort of jarring blow that, inflicted repeatedly, can injure the brains of human players.

American football has been rocked by controversy over the last decade, as it has become clear that the repeated collisions inherent to the sport are giving players concussions and sometimes causing debilitating and permanent brain trauma.

Doctors, politicians, and parents are asking an urgent question: If these smashing impacts begin when players are young, what will be the cumulative effect after many years?

By serving as a realistic stand-in, we figured, a robot would reduce player-on-player impacts during tackling drills, when many head injuries occur.

We aimed to build a zippy padded robot that could be knocked down by a powerful linebacker and immediately pop back up, ready for the next player’s charge.

Over the past few months we distributed those robots to customers on our waiting list, which included NFL teams and some of the top college football teams in the country.

We can even imagine a futuristic football practice in which players jog onto the field and find an entire robotic team waiting for them on the line of scrimmage.

But the coach kept wishing that he could safely approximate game conditions in practice sessions, allowing his defensive players to chase and tackle elusive runners.

We aimed to build a fast-moving robot that could realistically simulate a football player and withstand repeated tackles, and we promised to deliver it to the coach in six months.

Our original idea was to build a robot that would roll on a central ball so it could move quickly in any direction, mimicking a human player’s unpredictable runs.

So we simply added passive stabilizers, ringing the base with steel tubing that lightly skimmed over the ground while the robot rolled along.

We had trouble generating the right amount of traction in two places: between the ball and the small internal drivetrain wheels that controlled its spin, and also between the ball and the ground.

We used computer models to find a shape with the right center of gravity, ending up with something resembling a Weeble, the roly-poly children’s toy.

We poured green foam into a mold to get the form we wanted—a human-height cone with a rounded base—and added big chunks of steel as ballast.

We added an off-the-shelf radio communications system to steer the bot via remote control, and we hooked in jumper cables to power the robot with the car battery taken from Connell’s Subaru.

I stashed the prototype in various lab spaces in the engineering building before finally moving it to my former fraternity house, where I parked it in a closet next to a stack of empty beer kegs.

We tried many different batteries and setups, with plenty of failures: More than once we left the football field with smoking wreckage when a drive system burned through wires or damaged the batteries.

We tried many different air-filled balls, and we turned out dozens of intricate components on the engineering school’s 3D printer as we tried to get better traction between the drivetrain wheels and the ball.

We eventually developed a housing mechanism where the ball was held in place with sprung casters, which kept it tensioned against the drive wheels.

We loaded the dummy into the back of a truck, and during our drive to the football field we crossed paths with a Dartmouth rugby player who volunteered to help out with the first test.

While Connell remotely steered the speedy robot in loops and zigzags around the field, our expert tackler repeatedly ran after the bot and took it down.

We had cause for concern: About 3 minutes into the drill, an MVP popped up from a hit with one wheel running continuously at full speed, making the robot spin around in tight circles.

I hustled it off the field, and when we pulled it apart we discovered that a battery lead had been jarred loose and, astoundingly, connected itself directly to a motor lead, entirely bypassing the electronics platform controlling the voltage.

Our final prototype weighed about 70 kilograms (150pounds) and had a top speed of 32 kilometers per hour (20 miles per hour), which is fast enough to mimic a human player.

So we established a partnership with Rogers Athletic Co., a leading manufacturer of football equipment based in Clare, Mich., and the company built six beta units that we brought to spring training camps in 2016.

At multipurpose high school fields, our MVP had trouble moving smoothly over the dirt in the baseball diamond’s running paths, particularly when the ground was muddy.

American football is a tough sport, and its robotic players must be tough, too—the MVP should work through snow, ice, mud, rain, or scorching heat.

We settled finally on a better two-part control system: a trigger that the user pulls to power the bot forward and a steering wheel to control its direction.

The OS could also support a local-area network that lets MVPs communicate with each other—potentially enabling us to field an entire robotic team, with MVPs working in concert to execute plays.

Dartmouth Football's Brilliant Dummies

Wearing a green Dartmouth College jersey, the newest player on the school's football team readies for action during a preseason practice.

Developed by students at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering, the new robotic dummies were designed to allow players to practice tackling without injuring one another in the process.

He said the 5-foot-11-inch, 200-plus-pound MVP can weave, cut, stop and start — even 'run' a respectable 4.8-second 40-yard-dash.

Starting five years ago, Teevens decided to completely do away with tackles in practice, citing athlete-on-athlete collisions as a main cause of concussive injuries.

The first full season after implementing the new method, the team's number of missed tackles dropped by half, Teevens said.

Kastner, a former Dartmouth football player, and Connell, who played rugby there, are the primary developers of the MVP, which started as their senior capstone project in 2013.

'I was fortunate enough to never have a concussion, but players on my team missed weeks after sustaining a blow to the head.

The U.S. National Rugby Team shared a video of the robot in action that quickly racked up more than a million views, and Teevens said three NFL teams have called to inquire about it, though he declined to say which ones.

To reduce concussions, Dartmouth now uses robotic tackle dummies during football practice

As the NFL tries (and constantly fails) to navigate around the growing problem of player concussions, an Ivy League school in New Hampshire has come up with a way to actively combat this risk of injury instead of, you know, just looking the other way.

Though the team resorted to using stationary dummies, bags, and sleds in the seasons since then, the introduction of the MVPs gives the team a revolutionary way to practice with moving targets while still avoiding hitting each other.

rare approach led to a decrease in the team’s missed tackles in games, the coach still grew frustrated with the fact his players had no good way to simulate a moving opponent.

Considering its incredible value to the well-being of football players the world over, as well as the fact these dummies cost just $3,500 to make, it’s no surprise researchers are currently devising a way to market these bots to high schools, colleges, youth football programs, and the professional ranks.

Dartmouth Student Engineers Build Robotic Tackling Dummy To Fight Concussions

The NFL and other colleges have already gained interest in the MVP: “They have no-tackle football practices at Dartmouth, so the players tackle the robot instead of each other,” said state Rep. Livvy Floren, R-Greenwich.

Concussion awareness has been increasingly high in the most recent years of football and many parents and school officials think schools should be teaching concussion training just like they do CPR training.

According to the CDC, a concussion, which affects how the brain functions, is caused by a blow to the head or a blow to the body that causes the head to move rapidly inside the skull.

Failing to treat a concussion immediately can prolong recovery, which is why many state representatives and athletic trainers are pushing for more training among players, parents, and school officials.

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