October 14, 2016      

By now you’ve probably heard about the Mobile Virtual Player (MVP) robot tackling dummy being used by seven National Football League (NFL) teams to reduce injuries during practices. But it’s time to stop pigeonholing the MVP robot as just a football player. It’s already so much more than that.

The MVP robot, created by former Dartmouth College student-athletes Quinn Connell and Elliot Kastner, is well on its way to being a multi-sport star. Think Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, Tim Tebow. OK, maybe that last athlete’s a stretch, but you get the idea. And the MVP robot won’t be limited to contact sports and contact drills.

John Currier, CEO of New Hampshire-based MVP, tells Robotics Trends that the MVP robot is already being used in practice by a number of other sports.

“There’s a number of different drills across different sports that MVP can be used for,” says Currier. “It works for any situation where you don’t want someone out there doing repetitive things, getting hit with the ball, blocking home base. There are many things you don’t want players doing over and over again. And the form factor could change depending on the sport.”

Vanderbilt University’s baseball team is currently using the MVP robot for baseline running drills and to stand in against pitchers pretending to be a batter. Dartmouth’s softball team is also using an MVP robot to act as a runner during run-downs and cut-off drills. Watch the video below.

Hockey is another natural progression. Currier says MVP has been talking with Dartmouth men’s hockey coach Bob Gaudet to see how the robot can be adapted for the ice. For example, shot-blocking has always been viewed as an important defensive skill in hockey, but dropping down and laying on the ice to block a puck exposes players to injuries. MVP admittedly isn’t far along in the process of developing a puck-blocking, hockey version of the robot, but it’s definitely an avenue the company will explore.

“Killing a power-play can be the difference between a win and a lose, so it’s very important to work on man-down situations,” Currier says. “But it’s a hard thing to practice. You’re putting your players at risk, putting them at the mercy of a slap shot. To do that to your own teammate, it’s a tough thing to do. So they have to very carefully contrive practices for that.”

Football will be MVP robot’s go-to sport

Other sports that are a fit for the MVP include lacrosse (robot goalie), rugby (similar to football), and soccer (concussions from heading the ball), but, yes, football still is and will always be the MVP’s bread and butter. One reason is that football teams, no matter at what level, have by far the largest roster size of any sport.

“NFL teams, in particular, are constrained by the number of players they can have on the practice field. They aren’t enough players to do all the drills and run all the packages they want to run,” says Currier. “They’re starved for bodies, especially bodies they don’t care about getting hit.”

The Baltimore Ravens, Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Rams, Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers are each using multiple MVP robots in practice. And the feedback from these NFL teams has been very positive, especially since they’re using MVP robots for things the company never imagined.

The Steelers used one of their MVP robots as a wide receiver to run routes against a defensive back for an extra 45 minutes after practice. Other teams have used MVP robots as wide receivers to help their defense learn how to break into the correct Cover 2 alignment. Coaches have used it with kickers to run an MVP robot or two in front of kickers to distract them.

“Kicking’s a mental game,” Currier says. “Just the fact that the robot is there, even if it hasn’t hit you, changes the kicker’s approach.”

Each NFL team manually controls the MVP robots based on the drill being practiced. Currier says a more autonomous model is in the company’s plans. The NFL teams are using the commercial version of the MVP robot that will officially start shipping in January 2017 for $8,000.

MVP robot part of NFL’s $100M concussion initiative?

That price tag is another reason the NFL will always be the MVP’s strongest market. Eight thousand dollars is nothing for NFL teams or major college athletic programs, but high school and youth sports teams can’t afford that, and Currier is well aware of and working on that issue.

In September 2016, the NFL and its 32 teams announced a $100 million concussion initiative that will support engineering advancements and medical research to increase the safety of football, specifically by preventing, diagnosing and treating head injuries. Currier hopes the MVP robot can be a part of this mission.

“We’re trying to work with other partners to make our technology available to any program that wants one. We think there’s an opportunity for the NFL and each team to sponsor MVP robots for their local high school and Pop Warner youth football teams,” Currier says. “Not only would this be great for the community, but it would be good PR for the NFL.

“Do we need to make the MVP cheaper? Sure. But let’s bring it all the way across the finish line. The kids who play youth football are the NFL’s future players, coaches, referees, and administrators. That should be important to the NFL.”