Robots get NFL tryout: Steelers experiment with robotic tackling dummies

You know those cool-looking NFL on Fox robots? This is nothing like that.

MVP Robot gets Steelers Tryout

MVP tackling dummy, developed at Dartmouth, gets Steelers tryout.

Last week I wrote about a robot that may train the next ping pong great. Now there's this out of the NFL: The Pittsburgh Steelers, bane of Chargers fans everywhere, are experimenting with robotic tackling dummies.

The Mobile Virtual Player (get it? MVP) is a robotic tackling dummy operated by remote control. The technology was developed by engineers at Dartmouth College, where it's been in use by the football squad since last year.

"It's an awesome piece of football technology," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. "I am always interested in ways to utilize technology in terms of teaching football. We are excited to get a close look at it."

The idea for the MVP arose after Dartmouth football coach Buddy Teevens banned live tackling in practice because of injuries, a step several coaches have been taking now that science is finally beginning to prove that getting bashed in the head is actually bad for you. Reliable stats are tough to come by, but it's estimated there are 4 to 5 million sports-related concussions in the U.S. every year. Most of those involve 5-18 year olds.

But if banning tackling in practice prevents unnecessary trauma, it can also put players at more risk. That's because tackling with improper technique is hugely dangerous. I remember a scary moment from high school team when a teammate barreled into an opposing player with his head down and buckled limply to the floor. He regained consciousness and walked off, but plenty of kids don't. Unquestionably the safest choice is to avoid full-contact sports. But if kids are playing, they certainly need proper technique, and that means lots of practice.

That dilemma in mind, engineers at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering started dreaming up a solution. The MVP is remote-controlled and has the ability to cut, weave, stop and start at various speeds.

"We were tasked with how can we practice tackling without utilizing another player," said Elliot Kastner, a former defensive tackle for Dartmouth who is the co-founder/director of research and development for Mobile Virtual Player. "What it comes down to is repetitive impact on players is what we are trying to eliminate. We realized the safest thing to do is pull one of those players out of the drill. It was introduced to reduce player on player contact."

The version the Steelers are using with is still experimental, but there could be a broader rollout by 2017.

"The players are generally open, particularly this time of year, to new things," said Tomlin. "In today's NFL, with player safety the focus that it is, I think it's going to provide opportunities to improve in that area without the hand to hand or man to man combat associated with that teaching."

Next thing you know professional jousters will be tilting at robot horses.