Reducing Sports-Related Concussions One Tackle at a Time

Mobile Virtual Player (MVP) aims to transform football and rugby training.

(Image courtesy of Amanda Swinhart.)

(Image courtesy of Amanda Swinhart.)

Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are a growing concern in the world of sports.

Between 2012 and 2015, the NFL reported a total of 967 diagnosed concussions occurring in preseason and regular season practices and games. More alarmingly, in 2012 alone an estimated 329,290 children (age 19 or younger) were treated in U.S. emergency rooms for sports-related injuries that included a diagnosis of concussion or TBI, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The real tragedy here is that these injuries are entirely avoidable. Giving up on full-contact, high-impact sports is the most obvious way to do that, but I think we can all agree that that’s never going to happen. A more realistic alternative—and the one most relevant to engineers—is to improve our sporting equipment, whether it’s stickier gloves for receivers, re-designed tackling sleds or 3D-printed helmets.

For New Hampshire-based Mobile Virtual Player, LLC, the solution is even more radical: a remote-controlled, self-righting tackling dummy. Players can only engage in a limited number of contact practices, due to the inherent risks that come with being tackled. Replacing the player with a mobile tackling dummy allows players to continue contact practices while substantially reducing the risk of concussion.

John Currier, president and CEO of MVP, demonstrates the mobile tackling dummy. (Video courtesy of the author.)

Powered by rechargeable lithium batteries and a patented electro-mechanical drive system, the MVP was developed by students at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering.

The tackling dummy is operated via RC link from a hand-held control unit which has the range to be anywhere on the field or in the stadium. Its two drive wheels are designed to optimize traction on both infill turf and real grass fields, and it has user-selectable dual modes of acceleration for turf or grass. 

Stabilizing rollers allow quick and agile starts, stops and cornering. The fully encased and foam-padded drivetrain protects both the dummy’s components and the players interacting with it. 

Additional features include an on-board battery management system for long battery life, automatic tackle shut-off that cuts power to the drive wheels during a tackle, a sensor-assisted control that allows a quick learning curve for the operator and facilitates tight control at high speeds and run-flat tires.

The dummy can run at 18 mph on a well-maintained surface, and does a 40-yard dash in approximately five seconds.

(Image courtesy of Amanda Swinhart.)

(Image courtesy of Amanda Swinhart.)

“During initial development, there were many prototypes built to test different systems—all with varying degrees of robustness and outward appearance,” explained John Currier, president and CEO of MVP. “There have been several generations of MVP—at least three—during its development to the commercial product that’s on the field today. Each generation incorporated improvements that were identified through testing with teams at practice.”

Although the current commercial version of MVP is exclusively remote-controlled, Currier admitted that building an autonomous version of the dummy is something his company is pursuing for future versions.

“They are all the same basic stature—about 5 feet, 8 inches tall and 180-190 pounds—but we’re currently developing a ‘youth model MVP’ for testing later this year during football season,” Currier added. “The youth model will be substantially smaller, lighter and tailored for practice and training of players younger than high school age.”

When asked about the biggest engineering challenge of developing MVP, Currier highlighted the ruggedness of its design. “There is a lot of technology that needs to be robust enough to consistently and reliably take big hits, pop back up, and be ready to get hit again by very big, strong, fast players,” he said.

With this challenge effectively overcome, Currier and his team are exploring how to get even more out of a mobile virtual player. For example, incorporating sensors that can provide metrics on tackles in terms of location, force and acceleration, that will provide new ways to quantify and objectively identify what constitutes a “proper” or “safe” tackle.

“There’s a lot of learning to be done in that realm—people learning and machine learning,” said Currier.

(Image courtesy of Amanda Swinhart.)

(Image courtesy of Amanda Swinhart.)

Something the MVP team has learned by working with coaches and players is that the MVP’s elusiveness comes largely from its ability to stop, change direction or reverse quickly with no visual clues. The dummy has no arms or legs to change cadence or to shift in preparation for a cut. 

“A player ‘opposing’ an MVP has to be attentive, ready to read and react,” said Currier. “Failing to do so means you get beat by a dummy in front of your coaches, teammates and perhaps cameras. That mindset ‘ups their game’ during practice drills.”

The NFL would seem to agree; 17 teams are currently using at least one MVP in training. At a price of $8,295 USD, expect to see even more MVPs popping up on football and rugby fields in the near future.

For more information, visit the MVP website.