It had been years since the accident. In a box of mementos of his son, Brian, Bill Hederman came across a sketchbook that curiously he didn’t recall thumbing through before now. Brian was an avid sketch artist and had a real knack for it. The hobby yielded volumes of sketchbooks and as the elder Hederman thumbed through this edition, a particular drawing caught his eye.

Brian died in an automobile accident in July 1995, while home for summer break between his freshman and sophomore years at Notre Dame. In just one year at the University, he left an indelible imprint. A memorial scholarship was established, given annually to a student who exemplifies Brian’s character as described in a poem written by one of his friends. Outside Morrissey Hall, his residence hall while at Notre Dame, a tree was planted in his honor.

Yet as his father observed this drawing, there was a spark for a new, dynamic memorial to Brian.

“The drawing was a humanoid robot playing football. A quarterback,” recalls Bill Hederman.

The drawing gave Hederman an idea. He reached out to a couple of his College of Engineering classmates with a proposal for a new kind of robotics competition – one that might act as an interest-builder as well as an academically valuable experience.

“Lots of competitions in robotics are exclusively technical,” Hederman said. “I think our key insight was, what if we could come up with a competition that is exciting, technically challenging, and might even involve the rest of the University community?”

The idea didn’t take off overnight. There were multiple back-and-forth conversations between faculty and administration about the overall value of the concept, and how best to implement it. Finally the idea found a home in a senior design course taught by associate professor of engineering Michael Stanisic. That first year, he allowed a handful of students to make robotic football their course project. They were charged with defining the game: the teams, the rules, and demonstrating an aspect of the competition.

Stanisic observed that as stand-alone projects, undertaken by a small segment of the class, robotic football didn’t have the necessary participation to make it a worthwhile educational endeavor. So the next year, every senior enrolled in the design course worked on the concept. They were split into two groups (blue vs. gold), and built robots that carried out actions found in a traditional American football game.

“That first game they played was magical, even if it was at a rudimentary level,” Stanisic recalled.

It was clear the idea was a winner. The robotic football enterprise was contained in various curricula and club units over the next several years. Today, there is a robust student club and two courses at Notre Dame: robot football design and robot football build. Seniors must also take the senior design course separately.

As the club has advanced organizationally, it has also advanced technologically. Today's robots are built on 16-inch square platforms (except for the kicker, which can boot the ball as far as 60 feet from its rectangular base). Stanisic recalls how the first robots simulated a forward pass between the quarterback and wide receiver using a catapult and Velcro. Today, the process is much more refined, with a tremendous amount of engineering muscle on display.

Today’s passing game is a complex system of sensors and motors. The quarterback must determine both the distance and the orientation to face the wide receiver. To achieve this, the quarterback relies on a computer vision camera sensor that tracks the bright green, blue, yellow and pink colors found on drape-like pieces of fabric placed on the wide receiver. The quarterback robot uses the size of the wide receiver in the video frame to calculate the distance to the target wide receiver robot.

Students from the College of Engineering host a robotic football exhibition game at Stepan Center.
Close up of one robot passing the ball to another. Two College of Engineering students work on a robot.

That distance is crucial in determining the velocity of the pass. The quarterback is fitted with a turntable that carries a motor that spins two wheels at the required rate, then gently feeds the ball in between them to propel it forward. The rate of spinning is controlled by motor voltage powered by batteries, but those batteries weaken during the course of a game. So, a feedback and sensor loop is required so the proper voltage is produced and the proper wheel speed is achieved.

But the quarterback still must throw in the right direction. To do this, the receiver emits an infrared beam. The quarterback spins the turntable until it locates that beam, then fires the ball.

“It’s challenging to take a game that humans play and figure out a way that we can engineer robots to do the same things,” said Zoe Dingeman, a junior mechanical engineering major and robotic football club president. The challenge is not just in executing a pass, optimizing a running back’s speed, or the power of a robotic lineman. It’s in learning different facets of the discipline, and how they work together.

“You can design the wide receiver to do all kinds of awesome stuff, but not if you’re not in close contact with the folks who are designing the quarterback,” Stanisic said.

"It’s challenging to take a game that humans play and figure out a way that we can engineer robots to do the same things."

“Everyone has to bring their skill set to the table, but we also have to work with each other and learn from each other,” added Dingeman. “As a mechanical engineer I get to learn a lot about electrical engineering, and programming. There’s a lot of crosstalk there, but you have to have it in order for everything to come together and for it to work.”

It’s practical application of the theory taught in classes. Prof. James Schmeideler, who teaches an introductory robotics course and helps to advise the robotic football club, describes the benefit as learning at the “systems level.” The robots themselves are systems, with software, mechanical and electrical components working together to achieve a desired function. If any one of those pieces fail, the whole system is likely doomed. But at a higher level, the football team itself is in a sense a system of systems. So individual robots aren’t designed in isolation, but rather with the intent of cooperation and collaboration with other robot systems.

“That is the most realistic, hands-on experience they can get in terms of preparing themselves for the workplace,” Schmeideler said. “In the engineering world today, it’s extremely rare to spend a significant amount of your time on a single component without thinking through how it will fit into the bigger system.”

Indeed, several senior club members have employment lined up after graduation, and each has indicated that the experience in robotic football was an advantage in their candidacy.

Yet for all the cross-disciplinary technological skill required, the concept of robotic football remains approachable enough to engage young people. Members of the club routinely hold demonstrations for grade schools and junior and senior high schools, in which students can learn about the robots and control them. The outreach usually takes place around STEM Week in late April. The interactions at these showcases are often some of the highlights of the year for club members. “It inspires the next generation to get excited about STEM,” said Dingeman. “It’s something that kids can see that gets them excited about engineering. When they get to see something like this, they get to think about the bigger picture, and have a better understanding of something they might work toward as an engineer.”

Members of the club doing a demonstrations inside a gymnasium for grade schools students.
Photo by Wes Evard.
Close up of one robot passing the ball to another. Audience watching the robotic football exhibition game at Stepan Center.

Eddie Hunckler, a 2017 senior and club member who played a leading role in designing the current base platform the team uses for its robots, said the discovery that takes place in these sessions with younger students gives them a deeper understanding of the tech at work. “There’s a level of surprise that people have,” Hunckler said. “We open up our robots and let them look inside and see what’s going on. A lot of the components have a really practical purpose – the motor, the battery – they can connect to that sort of thing, but they get to see how it comes together in a little different way.”

Hunckler plans to join two fellow robotic football alumni at a Chicago manufacturing firm. Each said the experience was beneficial as a differentiator in their job candidacy, and now in their day-to-day work. The value of the experience to employers has helped Hederman and his colleagues build a small intercollegiate league with schools regionally close to Notre Dame. As faculty and administrators from other schools see its practical and educational value, they begin to buy into the concept and build programs on their own campuses.

Brian Hederman Memorial Trophy; Intercollegiate Champions of Robotic Football

On April 20, 2012, the first intercollegiate robotic football game was held in Notre Dame’s Stepan Center, featuring the clubs from Notre Dame and Ohio Northern University. Since then, other colleges have formed their own teams and now an annual tournament is played in the Spring. Seeding for that event is determined at a combine – yes, similar to what NFL prospects undergo in Indianapolis each year – during which the machines are measured for strength, passing accuracy, speed, maneuverability and kicking distance. The combine also serves to lower the barrier of entry for institutions that can’t support a full-fledged club; individual robots can compete as well.

Eventually, Hederman and others would like to see leagues form along traditional athletic conference lines – the Big Ten, Atlantic Coast Conference, etc. For now, the regional tournament featuring schools from Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin will compete for the Brian Hederman Memorial Trophy – a tribute to the young man’s whose sketch inspired it all. The figure at the top of the trophy is inspired by Brian’s original sketch, though the position it strikes is meant to be that of Ronald Reagan as he played Notre Dame legend George Gipp in the film Knute Rockne, All-American. Inasmuch as Gipp’s story is an inspiration, the symbolism involved in connecting his football story to Brian Hederman’s robotic football story is only appropriate. Now retired but still active on a number of boards and a key advisor on energy creation and policy, Bill Hederman still finds time to advance the concept that was borne of a sketch made decades ago.

“It’s an active love in my heart,” he said. “That’s what keeps me going on it.”