This robot quarterback could be the future of football practice | Technology
When the Green Bay Packers entered the training ground this week, they were greeted by an unusual new teammate: a robot.
In videos on Twitter, a 6-foot-tall white robotic machine simulates a punter, sending balls at a rapid pace to players on the field. The robot, which contains six balls in a rotating cartridge, could also mimic the style of a quarterback, including the speed, arc and timing of a pitch.
The Seeker is a robotic quarterback, kicker and punter rolled into one. This is a modern take on football equipment, called a JUGS machine, which has been used for decades to simulate throwing and kicking football players. The seeker, according to company officials, however, is a more accurate launcher and runs software that allows players to practice more advanced game scenarios.
The robot, created by Dallas-based Monarc Sport, is starting to gain acceptance. Top college football programs, such as Louisiana State University, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Iowa, all have the seeker as part of their training strategy. The Green Bay Packers are the first team in the National Football League to try this technology.
The Seeker’s software allows players to customize the way they train with it. Athletes can catch balls close to the machine to improve hand-eye coordination. They can also program the robot to throw a ball at a location on the field, or simulate more realistic conditions by throwing over or under a ball. Players wear a pager-like tag that allows the robot to track their location on the field and toss a ball precisely within inches.
“It gives so many opportunities for our guys to get reps without needing to have a quarterback there,” said Ben Hansen, director of football administration in Iowa, where technology was tested for the first time. “That’s a huge plus.”
Since the 1970s, football teams have relied on the JUGS machine to avoid burning out quarterbacks and kickers. It fired soccer balls through two high-speed rotating discs and allowed players to run routes or practice catching on their own, operating with basic machinery and without using software.
Over the decades, the machine – named after its creator, JUGS Sports – has become commonplace on football pitches. But he was criticized by football staff for his poor performances.
Matt LaFleur, the head coach of the Green Bay Packers, spent a few minutes in early August criticizing the JUGS machine for not faking punts well. “It was awful,” he told a news conference. “You couldn’t spin the ball. It was almost impossible to catch.”
JR Reichenbach, national account manager at JUGS Sports, said the company contacted the Packers after seeing the clip to ask if they could help resolve the issue. “We were there for them,” he said. “They didn’t need anything, everything is fine.”
Igor Karlicic and Bhargav Maganti, co-founders of Monarc Sport, started working on the Seeker in 2015 as engineering students at Northwestern University looking for a way to allow wide receivers to practice on their own. They created a prototype and worked with Iowa to refine the concept.
The Seeker robot has two rotating discs, similar to a JUGS machine, which spin quickly and help throw a ball. The robot can carry six bullets at a time in cartridges, similar to a rotating gun chamber. Each robot costs about $40,000 to $50,000 a year for hardware, software and maintenance, Karlicic said.
“The little perks matter a lot,” Karlicic said of the robot’s training options. “All of that has a huge impact on game day.”
Hansen, from Iowa, said in an interview that his team started using the Seeker in 2018. One of the most useful parts of the technology, he said, is being able to program it to launch passes that simulate game day conditions. Unlike the JUGS machine, he said, which has no software to pass random patterns, the Seeker can deliberately throw passes that aren’t perfect.
“Every pass isn’t always going to hit you in the chest,” he said. “So being able to practice and simulate different types of passes that come your way only helps your ability to be more efficient and productive when it comes to catching.”
A case study published in April by Microsoft, which provides the software ecosystem for the robot, noted that West Virginia University’s pass rate fell to 4% in 2021 from 53% last season after the introduction of the robot into the training. The university’s senior athletic director said the robot deserved “share of the credit” for the result.
After LaFleur complained about the Packers’ JUGS machine, Karlicic said his company accelerated a plan to give the team a tryout of the robot that was in practice this week. The team is not yet an official customer, Karlicic said, but has been talking to Monarc Sport for months.
The Green Bay Packers declined to comment.
Daron K. Roberts, former NFL assistant coach and director of the Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation at the University of Texas, said in an interview that he’s not surprised football teams are interested in the Seeker. . In recent years, the NFL has leaned into wearable devices, drones and other forms of technology to automate training and team operations.
“Technology has seeped into the NFL,” he said.
Roberts said most NFL teams will likely review the Packers’ tryout to assess whether there are any tangible benefits.
“The NFL is a very hearty league,” he said. “If another team has an advantage, other teams will follow.”