Finding a Role for Robots in Sports

In the modern era of sportsmanship, athletes have carefully individualized training regimes, a monitored caloric intake, and they regularly endure a thorough battery of tests.

The human factor of sports is highly celebrated, and rightly so. Still, there is a place for robotics in this intensely competitive world. In the present, robots are already helping athletes to train without enduring injury. In the future, robots will work alongside human athletes to help achieve a level of performance and sportsmanship hitherto unseen.

Robots Don't Get Concussions

No one can deny that contact sports are dangerous. Apart from the serious risks posed by recurring concussions, a lifetime of running, falling, and colliding with other players can take a serious toll on the human body. Professional athletes are paid to withstand these injuries, but student athletes are another matter.

Universities are understandably worried about their top performing students becoming injured during games. Therefore, the Ivy League has actually banned tackling during football practice. As a substitute, meet the robotic tackle dummy.

The Most Valuable Robot

The Mobile Virtual Player (MVP for short) is an innovation from Dartmouth College designed to prevent player injury during practice. It's a squat foam cylinder in form, with wheels that allow it to travel at up to 32 kilometers per hour (around the median for NFL players). On the inside, reinforced circuits allow the dummy to withstand hits from 300lb linebackers.

Although the robot is currently controlled via remote, more like a drone than a true robot, the technical challenges involved in creating a durable robot that can drive on turf are formidable. Moreover, its designers are already planning an upgrade that allows for autonomous behavior. Autonomous or not, the major leagues have already taken an interest—two MVPs now grace the practice field of the Pittsburg Steelers.

A Future With Robot Athletes?

Tackle dummies are neat, but without hands to throw or catch a football, they're probably going to stay on the sidelines. Some roboticists have decided to pursue a loftier goal: creating humanoid robots that will one day equal the ability of human players.

Humans have tested their skills against robots since the dawn of science. Notable competitors included the Mechanical Turk (thought to be a chess-playing robot, actually a scam operated by a chess prodigy hiding inside), Deep Blue, and AlphaGo. These competitors, however, are generally confined to a more cerebral realm.

Since Deep Blue's chess victory in 1997, however, a group of researchers have decided to advance the current state of robotics by designing a team of automatons which they hope will one-day match the human World Cup champions in a game of soccer.

Robot Soccer is Not Quite Ready for Primetime

Based on the recent results of the competition known as the RoboCup, it's clear that the researchers have picked themselves an incredible challenge. Video from the 2016 championship shows the various robots (all teams use the same hardware platform to keep it fair) moving only at a slow shuffle. Although the participants are capable of passing, blocking, and scoring, most of the challenge arises from their inability to keep from falling over.

Under the hardware, however, the robots are evolving. Wireless communications and advanced machine vision algorithms give these robots the ability to find the ball and communicate its position to the other players. Although currently unpractical for playing against humans, the larger science of robotics benefits greatly from teamwork, which aids in medical, industrial, and military applications.

Although researchers have set a target goal of 2050 for the first practical soccer robots, it's become clear that advancements in robotics are starting to outstrip expectations. Do we think that robots will outplay humans in a game of soccer? Not in our lifetimes. More likely, robot assistants will allow human players to hone their skills at a high level of play. Since it's hard to injure yourself while tackling a robot made of foam, human players will be able to practice at a higher level of intensity, thus achieving greater feats of performance during play.