The MVP Drive is an RC tackling dummy designed to reduce the need for consistent impacts for players during contact sports practice.
Mobile Virtual Player started with Coach Buddy Teevens of Dartmouth football who determined that tackling during practice exposed his players to needless dangers. He turned to mechanical engineering students at the Thayer School of Engineering, Quinn Connell and Elliot Kastner, to develop a dummy that could be controlled by a coach on the sidelines to limit tackling during practice.
Quinn, now VP of Engineering for Mobile Virtual Player, spoke with AAC about the process of designing, testing, and launching a device so rugged that it can withstand a literal football team's worth of tackles.
All About Circuits: Can you tell us a bit about the intention behind the device?
Quinn Connell: Protecting the players is really at the core of it. The added benefits to the performance and training and coachability are just that—added benefits.
The MVP Drive. All images courtesy of Mobile Virtual Player.
AAC: This is an extremely timely product with health and safety in sports continuing to be a national conversation. Have you had much contact with the groups that talk about sports safety?
QC: It's certainly cutting edge right now. People have kind of drawn a big black box around concussions, but we're not really sure what's inside that box. From identification—what the symptoms are, how can you tell if you've actually got a concussion on the field versus if you just have a headache because you're dehydrated—all the way through the recovery process, there are a lot of people who are actively trying to find out more.
Some of those people are involved in sports technology and we've been in touch with some of them. One avenue at Dartmouth is the medical school, which has some leading neuropsychologists. One in particular, John Lichtenstein, has worked with us really closely on making sure that we're integrating into football practice in ways that will be safe for the players. We're also trying to get feedback from those players on the ways we can improve the dummy and the ways that it's working well for them.
AAC: Speaking of what's working well, you guys sent out dummies for 2016 spring training, right?
QC: We had a fleet of beta units that went out for spring training. We took those to as many teams as possible. We basically would ship them from one program to another as soon as they finished training at one site. So we were able to get out on the field with a number of NFL teams, college teams—top programs—and get their feedback.
We also got a lot of mileage on the dummies, so through the course of that training, we were able to get an order of magnitude greater in the number of hits than if we'd just used a single team.
Some of the teams that took part in the training.
AAC: Did you have to make a lot of changes based on the feedback you received from that experience?
QC: We made a few tweaks, most notably to the suspension system. We added softer rollers so that, when it gets tackled, the exposed components are softer and more friendly to the athletes.
We also finished incorporating a steering assist system that makes it a lot easier to drive and control. But, beyond that, a lot of the prototyping iterations we'd done up to that point had fleshed out all the weak points of the system.
It calls to the mantra of "fail early, fail often"—we took a very iterative approach towards our design and prototypes. We're athletes, ourselves, and we were familiar with this environment—we knew that if we don't break it, somebody else would. So we got really proficient at breaking things and then being able to redesign around the core elements while making all the weak links stronger. After a complete fall season on the field, we had a bomb-proof design that we were able to transition into that beta run of production prototypes with our partner, Rogers Athletic.
AAC: We knew that you'd need to protect the components from the players, but it isn't always the case that the players need to be protected from the components. That's a little unusual.
QC: Our first concern there is to protect the players from the drive system housing and all the structural elements. And the flip side of that is we're also using the same kind of foam and compression to keep the players from damaging the high-performance power electronics on the inside. There's a lot of high-tech machinery in there that definitely isn't designed to be battered around by 300-pound men. So, because we're doing that on a day-to-day basis, we needed to make sure that everything we were doing was going to be rock solid to protect all of the elements.
AAC: This is about as rough-and-tumble as it gets in terms of device usability. Did you do specific research or look to other designs for similarly rugged products?
QC: As far as the implementation on the field where you have humans interacting with it, there's already football sled tackling equipment out there that uses some structural components and is protected in other ways by foam padding. So the upper body is basically just the same kind that you'd see in a traditional tackling dummy.
The interface between our structural components and our robotics system and that foam is something that we kind of developed on our own. We had to play with the way it's designed in order to reinforce it so that we don't have softer elements tearing but then they're still friendly enough to be tackled and landed on. That was definitely an iterative process.
Looking to other sporting equipment definitely helped with that side of things. On the power train and transmission side of things, we looked at other durable, rugged equipment that's out there—tractors, lawn mowers, consumer products that are also designed to be able to take a beating—which provided some inspiration.
AAC: As we noted in our original article on the MVP, you started with a ball base and had to move away from that. What can you tell us about that particular design decision?
QC: Our original concept was a ball drive system. What we liked about that was that we didn't have any sharp corners or edges that were protruding. It's basically just kind of a smooth interface with the ground. Additionally, it would have allowed it to accelerate in any direction without a turning radius so you don't have to stop or swivel or anything—you can just make cuts the same way that a player can. That was the drive system that we took off with through the auspices of the course and then beyond, even. We were really trying to get that to work.
It came down to the fact that we were essentially reinventing the wheel. As we scaled up, it became more and more difficult with the interfaces between the different components—between the motors and the wheels that were driving the ball and in between the ball and the field. It just became such a complex problem that we took a step back and hit that cut-off point where we said "Alright, if we don't have this working by now, we're going to scrap the ball drive idea.' I think about two weeks after that date, we decided to abandon the ball drive and revert to a more traditional wheel drive system. We had a prototype up and running on the field that worked better than anything else that we'd tried til that point.
That harkens back to the other engineering mantra, KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
AAC: You were also initially inspired by the 70s Weeble Wobble toy. How much of the Weeble Wobble is still in there?
QC: I'd say the heart and soul are still there but a lot of the machinery has been replaced.
The Weebles in question. Image source.
AAC: So you guys have mentioned (on Stephen Colbert's show) that you're looking at adding a head and possibly creating autonomous systems, allowing for pre-programmed routes. Can you tell us what you're aiming for in the future?
AAC: What can you tell us about the user interface and control system you've developed for controlling the device remotely?
QC: We found through user testing that you can spend all this time and money developing a more sophisticated communication link and a more complex control system but, ultimately, you can accomplish the same collective result, which is driving the dummy more easily, with a simpler solution. There's no reason to overcomplicate things.
We tried a number of different ways of controlling it and, for a while, we were hell-bent on getting an X-Box controller to work because we thought it was going to be so much more intuitive for people to use. And we found that it was actually easy for gamers and people who were used to using X-Box controllers—but the really universal experience that everyone has is driving a car. So what we have now is a pistol grip, which emulates sort of the gas and the steering of a car. You get 60 or 70-year-olds that pick it up and, within five minutes, they're driving proficiently.
We want to make sure that everything that we do is informed with consumer-based specifications. What does a football coach want? What's going to make it easier to operate? So those are the avenues that we'll be looking at developing—making it easier to operate, both at the one-to-one level we're at right now (where there's one person driving one dummy) and then also exploring the potential for more autonomous function to unlock higher performance where you have multiple dummies that are able to work together to execute plays and patterns.
The "MVP Distraction Catch" play suggestion from the MVP site.
AAC: So autonomous functionality may be in MVP's future. There are so many types of technology being researched for autonomous systems, such as camera and LiDAR systems for autonomous vehicles. Have you started looking that direction at this point?
QC: There's a lot of different technology out there that's used for location and mapping and the navigation is certainly a challenge. We have unique challenges and unique benefits. The fact that the device is designed to collide with human beings is a boon because, worst-case scenario, you end up getting tackled by the dummy. But, secondly, we want to make sure that anything we do doesn't make the dummy less safe. We don't want to be blindly driving around the field and going rogue. So those are the challenges that we're working through. We're trying to make sure that anything we do is going to be a safe implementation of that technology that will also help it perform better.
AAC: What can you tell us about the circuitry in the MVP?
QC: We're at the limit of the power output for electric motors that you can really find. We have something that's almost 200 pounds running around the field that's got a top speed of 20 miles per hour. Being able to start and stop on a dime like that is really difficult, as it turns out. So one element was actually redesigning our own custom motors and drive train that's been incorporated into the dummies. That's given us greater power and efficiency, custom tailored to our needs.
We've also got the control board that allows safety shut-offs for overheating or over-discharging the battery. It's got current limiting and temperature protection and it also cuts off power to the wheels once the dummy's been tackled so that they don't continue to spin if somebody's trying to drive it while a player's on it. We saw a couple of burned shins in the first few testing sessions and said, "Uh oh, that's gotta go."
We're continuing to expand on the features of the control board and that's really the user interface that gives the operator the readout for battery level, etc. We're trying to make that a more intuitive and user-friendly system.
AAC: What can you tell us about the process of bringing this product to market?
QC: From the design side, one area that we excel in is taking concepts quickly from ideas to prototype, sort of that minimum viable product that you can test and use that to inform design moving forward to the next stages. So, rather than spending a bunch of time and money in one direction and then going and testing it, we were doing that constantly. We had the advantage of being plugged into various communities and being able to test it, ourselves.
Moving from there, we were fortunate enough to have the support network of the engineering school (Thayer). We had support staff in the machine shop and the instrument room all the way to professors who are leaders in their fields, some of them in robotics. Having that wisdom to tap into as two mechanical engineers who were teaching ourselves electronics and hacking things together—it was a great learning experience.
The timing also couldn't have been better for us. We both understood that these issues were coming to a head and we were able to combine our engineering experience and interests with our athletic pursuits to come to a confluence that was an answer to this problem. A lot of companies get started under this entrepreneurial banner where people just want to get out there and they're going to force this product into the market. We, on the other hand, started with a problem and we worked to create a solution that would be effective for it. Because there was already a backing and a need there that maybe wasn't recognized by everybody, once we had that product out there, it really spoke for itself.
Through that early stage where we were getting to the prototypes, we relied a lot on friends and family and support from Dartmouth football and everyone that we knew to scrape together enough to get by. We lived that summer in the back of a truck, eating Ramen noodles. And then we had a product on the field because the need was real and because people instantly recognized the benefit and the positivity that it could bring to the sport. Then it was really easy to gain the traction that we needed because all the pieces of the puzzle had come together.
AAC: You probably had to develop a lot of skills (in the back of that truck, eating Ramen) that you didn't pick up in your engineering career. What sorts of skills would you recommend someone to develop if they want to follow in your footsteps and get their product to market?
QC: I'd say that you need to stay open-minded and have an attitude where you're willing to lean into a challenge and find out whatever it's going to take to overcome a problem. There are certain times when it makes sense to teach yourself everything and there are other times when you need to go outside for help.
It's almost impossible to give blanket advice for any project. For us in particular, it would've been helpful to have more experience in electronics, both digital and analog. It's something that we never really studied and so everything that we learned was out of necessity. At this point, I have a very good understanding of how all the control systems inside the dummy work. But if I'd had a little bit more formal training going in, some of the iterations probably would have been accelerated. That's the nice way to put it.
The online community has been great, too. There's a lot that we can find in-house or close by, particularly when we were working out of Thayer. But the resources that are at our fingertips now compared to even a decade ago are just staggering. So that's been extremely helpful, as well.
AAC: Crowdfunding has played an important role in the spread of the MVP device. How have you gone about tapping into communities for crowdsourcing?
QC: We actually worked with the Tuck School of Business here at Dartmouth and had a team do some market research. They found that parents are willing to contribute towards their team buying an MVP if it's going to mean a way to potentially reduce the harm of impact on players. So we looked at trying to create a crowdfunding platform where teams could create their own page and try to link around to the community, businesses, and anyone who has a vested interest in player welfare and safety.
Our partner, Rogers Athletic (who we're manufacturing the dummies with) just recently acquired a brand, Impact Athletics, that makes training tables. They already had that structure in place for fundraising for crowd-sourced equipment. So now we're live on that site, ImpactMyTeam, and really happy to be able to offer that structure for teams to spread the cost out over a community but still reap the full benefits of it for all the players.
ImpactMyTeam aims to let communities crowdfund equipment for their teams.
AAC: Yours is a unique product. Have you seen competitors pop up yet?
QC: Not yet but it's very much a copycat industry. At all the conventions, you see a lot of equipment manufacturers. If they don't have a new product, come back a year later and all of a sudden, they've got one that looks identical to yours. We want to make sure that we're doing our due diligence, not only on the patent/IP side but also just trade secrets, making sure that everything that we do is protected.
AAC: There's a lot of speculation about whether we're changing sports culture with this incorporation of technology—companies putting sensors in helmets and shoulder pads, for example. How have you felt about that as engineers and as athletes?
QC: I think it's the natural progression. As the game evolves and as people start to understand more about the physiological impact of playing it, it's natural to incorporate technology to solves these issues. People are going to be including technology in their teams that will help them perform better and if you can also do that in a manner that will make it safer, it's a no-brainer.
As Buddy says, if we don't change the way we teach the game, we won't have a game to teach. You'll hear him say that over and over again. It's really true—the game is changing. And if it doesn't, the participation rates are going to continue to fall because parents and teachers and even the kids, themselves, are not going to want to put themselves in those positions where they're at-risk.
You stand to lose a lot of the benefits that sports bring—leadership, camaraderie, teamwork—and also just the health aspects of being active. Having suffered a number of concussions, myself, during my career, I totally understand both sides of the coin. There's a reason I no longer play full-contact rugby. I have to come into work on Monday and I can't do that very well if I'm banged up. But at the same time, the lessons that I've learned through playing, I'll carry with me for the rest of my life.
So we don't necessarily see ourselves as changing the outlook on sports as much as we are an answer to the needs that are arising from the cultural shift and perception around contact sports. When you're practicing six times more than you're playing in games, there's a huge opportunity to structure training the way that you want to. As coaches like Buddy start to progress and realize that they can just as effectively develop their athletes without putting them at risk for the entire week up to the game, it can remove a lot of those sub-concussive hits. We're hoping to see improvement in player welfare and health in general.
Huge thanks to Quinn for his time and insights! Keep up with advances in MVP | Drive on their site.