Can Robots Prevent Head Injuries In The NFL?

Can a robot prevent head injuries in football? Doc Bear examines.

What if you stepped on the football field and found that your opponent was a robot?

No, neither Peyton Manning's brain nor J.J. Watt’s brawn. After having seen the capabilities of Dartmouth’s 'MVP’ robot tackling dummy, the university has received requests for the devices from all over the U.S. — and all over the world.

Fair disclosure: I was very leery of the claims that a ‘smart’ tackling dummy on rollers could make any serious difference in safer football practices. Sure, I’ve had talks with engineers on how much we can use robotic technology in the football of the future. Anything that might reduce the amount of concussive injuries is worth looking at. 

I’ve treated too many patients who couldn’t control their emotions, struggled with their memories and sat with tears on their faces, trying to find words to explain what was happening to them. If something might reduce CTE, it’s fine with me. But a robotic player? 

I watched it speed across the field and my only thought was, “Great - but they make lots of simple robots that travel and spin. How does that carry over into getting a quality practice experience?” 

It also occurred to me that Dartmouth isn’t exactly an SEC powerhouse of a team. Do they get the same level of training with the robot that they would against another human player? The players said that they did. A quick check had Dartmouth’s last 4 season’s records.

2012: 6-4

2013: 6-4

2014: 8-2

2015: 9-1

They haven’t tackled live in 7 years, but their record was anything but that of a pushover team. 

That was the first time I had to step off my initial, uninformed reaction. The second was when Dartmouth’s players affirmed that the MVP was tough to tackle. They looked like average college level players — there had to be something to their perspective. It can ‘run’ the 40-yard dash in about five seconds. That’s about the time of an offensive lineman — so just straight line speed isn’t at the NFL level yet.

In watching video of it, it’s very quick. It can juke very much like a ball carrier:  sometimes more quickly. It can spin to throw off tackles that aren’t tough enough. They’ve named it the MVP — Mobile Virtual Player. The players say that it’s hard to tackle, requires serious power to knock it down and good technique helps a lot. It’s easy to see that it’s use has some validity. 

Enough so that the Pittsburgh Steelers have added it to their practice field. People talk about some possible futures for football. Robotic and virtual reality options (with sensors to establish contact and missed, in pass routes, for example) are likely. Holographic targets that use the WR corps recent and practice tape to establish their route styles aren’t far off.

They’re still not finished products. Despite its use at Dartmouth and Pittsburgh, it’s still in the developmental phase. Elliot Kastner is a robotics engineer who has worked on the project.

“This is actually the first tackling dummy at any practice of this sort that can actually move and replicate player motion,” he said.

As I watched him work the controls, I realized that they had achieved a remarkable level of sophistication.

Kastner pointed out that when you have a problem with two players colliding (which always has the potential for one to move unexpectedly, creating accidental helmet collisions), a logical option is to remove one player from the equation. Blocking sleds are an old-school approach to the same problem.

The MVP provides a far more realistic second player. Simple, but sensible. A lot of high tech options are coming, such as those that interact with the Butterfly and similar video systems. They can already overlay multiple routes from a WR and establish their average or ‘standard’ route. That can be upgraded as the player improves.

Buddy Teevens is the head coach for Dartmouth. Quizzed on how similar hitting the MVP is to live tackling with teammates, he says that he hasn’t seen any difference at all. The coaches and players swear that it’s as close as you can get to tackling a live person.

Realistically, the NFL has averaged over 300 concussions per season for the last 3 years. They claim it’s less, but we’ve all seen players stagger and stay in the game. That doesn’t count the repetitive minor concussions a lineman will get.  Every one you prevent can mean better health as the players age.

One thing stood out to me, however. The players know that it’s a robotic dummy. It can be hard to hit, but they know they won’t damage anyone and at times they’ll  throw themselves at it full bore (after all, the Dartmouth group are college kids with a heck of a new toy). However - at times, their tackling technique was terrible. They used moves that would draw a flag in a real game. The lack of arms on the MVP leads to a lot of hitting squarely, but not wrapping up. Most of the players just rolled across it as it fell.

Yet that’s an easily fixable problem. When 9-year-olds can build a robot that solves Rubik’s Cube out of a Lego kit, older folks like myself have to realize the potential of that field on football. It won’t solve game collisions (although proper tackling technique will help greatly) but it’s a tremendous step—or roll—in the right direction.

As Mike Tomlin pointed out, a robot never gets tired. Coaches are always looking for a guy whose level of production doesn’t change in the 4th quarter.

He just wasn’t looking here.

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Doc Bear is a Featured Columnist for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter @DocBearOMD.

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