Robot Football Sparks Innovation

Students from Notre Dame and Ohio Northern University control robots at the first-ever intercollegiate robotic football gameWith stands packed like this, how will we fit the marching band next year? ROBOTIC MUSICIANS! Copyright University of Notre Dame / Photo by Matt Cashore.

Notre Dame was trailing Ohio Northern University early in the football game when the Irish quarterback launched a pass, connecting with a wide receiver upfield for a touchdown to take the lead.  The crowd erupted with cheers, possibly because Notre Dame had just scored.  But they probably cheered loudest because the quarterback was a robot.

On April 20, 2012, Notre Dame hosted the first intercollegiate Mechatronic Football Game in Stepan Center, pitting their own student-built football robots against visiting robots from Ohio Northern.  Each team, composed of 8 robots specifically designed for blocking, catching, kicking, and 'throwing' the football, was remotely controlled by students who stood on the sidelines of the basketball-court-sized playing field.  

While there might be some doubt as to which school most effectively used the forward pass in football's early days, Notre Dame is definitely the first to robotically pass its way past a robotic opponent.

Notre Dame engineering students celebrate at the first-ever intercollegiate robotic football gameUnlike that other football team on campus, ND's robotic players are undefeated this year. Copyright University of Notre Dame / Photo by Matt Cashore.

The robots, which were roughly the size of clunky desktop computers, were all designed by students in one section of associate professor Michael Stanisic's Mechanical Engineering Senior Design course.  Each robot was equipped with lights to signal when a robot was hit, tackled or injured -and there were plenty of injuries, as student engineers rushed to mend their players and get them back on the field.

Notre Dame defeated the Polar Bears 26-7, but the game itself signified something greater: the emergence of robotics as the next frontier.  Just as the DARPA Grand Challenge and the X-Prize have ramped up new research in driverless vehicles and space travel, respectively, competitive robot football might signal a new robotic way forward.

The Mechatronic Football Game's sponsors list, an impressive feat in itself, signals the major scientific and commercial implications of the competition.  Sponsors like the Motorola Foundation, Clean Urban Energy, and the American Society of Engineering chipped in.

On a different frontier, but one equally close to home, Notre Dame professor Joshua Diehl is researching the use of robots in communication therapy with autistic children.  Autism affects one in 100 children in America - a staggering statistic - and robots can help simplify inter-personal communication for affected children, making it easier for them to learn to communicate with their families.  Plus, autistic children have an affinity for technology, Diehl says, so robots are a natural therapeutic choice.

Robotic football players from Notre Dame and Ohio Northern University clash at the first-ever intercollegiate robotic football gameUnlike his flesh-and-blood counterpart, Michael Droyd has no hands, but he runs on batteries, which is a serious competitive advantage. Copyright University of Notre Dame / Photo by Matt Cashore.

And if tradtional football fans are skeptical, consider this: None other than Notre Dame's head football coach, Brian Kelly, attended the practices.  He might have been scouting Michael Droyd, the robot who wears #3 and plays wide receiver like his real-life counterpart, Michael Floyd.  Mr. Droyd isn't ready for Notre Dame Stadium just yet, coach, but he's probably not too far off.


Robots will be part of everyday life, writes Jon Swartz of USA TODAY. [Update: Australia's Sydney Morning Herald picked up the story too!]

The Mechatronic Football Game is a "display of ... sophisticated engineering concepts," writes Nina Welding for ND Newswire.

Notre Dame researchers are Fighting for Breakthroughs in the Treatment of Autism [YouTube video].

Check out for great shots of this year's Mechatronic Game and past robot football events at Notre Dame.

 by Michael Rodio

Posted In: Features