Robotic football club kicks off season, recounts unique origins
Isa Sheikh | Wednesday, September 8, 2021
Notre Dame’s robotic football club began its story in the early 2000s, when Bill Hederman found a sketchbook drawing by his son, Brian. Brian had died in a car accident in 1995, the summer after his freshman year at Notre Dame. The sketch depicted a humanoid quarterback robot playing football, striking a pose similar to that of the Heisman Trophy. Today, Brian’s legacy lives on in the form of a tree planted outside of Morrissey Manor, a memorial scholarship and the many who recall his character. This sketch, however, inspired Hederman to create a larger-scale tribute to his son.
It took a while for the idea to come to fruition, but eventually, in 2010, a few mechanical engineering students worked on creating football robots for a senior design course. In April 2012, the first-ever intercollegiate robotic football game was held in Stepan Center, featuring Notre Dame and Ohio Northern University. Since then, Valparaiso and Purdue University at Kokomo have joined the league.
In a given year, the club has 30 to 40 active members.
“We’ll see how that turns out this year, since we had 130 people come to our table at activities and 60 or 70 show up to our first meeting,” said Len Pieroni, a senior in Morrissey Manor and the president and head coach of robotic football.
The first time Zachary Mikhail, a first-year in Stanford Hall, heard about Notre Dame was in the James Patterson children’s book series “House of Robots.”
“It was about the robotic football team at Notre Dame, and I loved the book. But I also thought it was entirely fictional,” he said.
When Mikhail was applying to the University, he received a newsletter detailing unique opportunities on campus and saw a feature on a real robotic football team.
“I had no idea that it was real the entire time,” he said.
The robotic football club meets in the basement of Fitzpatrick Hall on Tuesday nights at 8 p.m., filling the halls with the sound of mechanical whirring and engineering jokes about soldering. They pack into room B01, the group’s lab filled with unfinished projects, whiteboards covered in electric diagrams and formulas as well as the star players themselves: the robots.
Every week, the group first discusses a broader view of the club and hears progress reports on their robots. Smaller groups work throughout the week on the maintenance and development of individual robots or different steps of the process.
“We’re mostly mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and computer science majors,” Pieroni said. “We have plenty of people but there’s always more stuff to do and always room for more.”
A couple of finance majors have even become members for the sole purpose of operating the robots during games, Pieroni said.
As a football school, Notre Dame might be thought to have a natural advantage, its student population relatively educated on the ins and outs of the game compared to other schools. Still, the team boasts members of all backgrounds.
“This is an easy way just to learn how football works, while also applying skills I learned in class,” said Alexa Zeese, a junior at Saint Mary’s in the engineering dual-degree program.
As a woman in STEM, Zeese said she appreciates the opportunities the club has given her.
“It’s really cool to just say, ‘Oh, we built this robot, and it works and we score points for our team. And it was all girls who built it’,” she said.
Similar to their human counterparts, the robots of robot football face injuries as a result of play, often more than surface level.
“These robots get hit so hard all the time that we’ll have wires come loose; we’ll have motor problems or the [plastic] won’t work anymore,” Pieroni explained. “Sometimes we’ll have something just completely break.”
Designing the robots is a constant process. Over the course of the past decade, the club has experimented with different ways of making the robots more effective. Notre Dame’s robotic quarterback has been named the best in league. Using a camera programmed to identify the various colors of the wide receivers, the robot can determine the distance needed to pass and propel the football approximately 15 feet forward.
In the wake of COVID-19, this year marks a return for robotic football. Even during the pandemic, however, members logged on through Zoom to meet as a club.
“Last year, having limited interaction with people, it was really nice to have a place to get together with a couple of friends,” Pieroni said. “We just got together in the middle of the week and just chitchatted for a while or if we had something big to talk about, we’d kind of get into technical discussions. Last year was more of a design year.”
To end the season, Notre Dame’s robotic football team will compete for the Brian Hederman trophy at the ninth annual championship game, hosted in the Stepan Center on April 6.