Tennis Industry magazine

 

Tennis Innovation: Rise of the Machine

Tennibot roams the tennis court collecting balls so players can focus on hitting them, not picking them up.

What happens when a post-doctoral engineering researcher becomes an avid tennis player? Innovative ideas on how to make the game of tennis better and more enjoyable for everyone. That was the case when Dr. Haitham Eletrabi, a researcher at Auburn University, started playing about nine years ago.

“I fell in love with the sport and was playing nearly every day,” Eletrabi says. “But the worst part for me was having to pick up the balls. People spend more time picking up tennis balls than actually hitting them.

“I wanted to solve this problem.”

Eletrabi had always had an interest in engineering, math and “building things.” The result of his efforts to improve the on-court experience for players of all skill levels is the Tennibot, a robotic tennis ball collector.

Tennibot, which currently is priced for preorder at $900, uses cameras, sensors, computer vision and complex algorithms to detect tennis balls on the court, travel to where they are, then pop them into a basket. The 25-pound droid roams the court while players are playing or practicing, then returns the balls so players spend more time hitting and less time — in fact, virtually no time — picking up balls.

“We tried to think of Tennibot like a tennis player would, rather than like engineers,” says Eletrabi, who is the founder and CEO of Tennibot. “As we continue to get feedback from tennis players and coaches, we’ll continue to improve Tennibot.”

Comments from users have already prompted Eletrabi and his team to modify Tennibot to hold up to 70 balls in the basket; it originally held 35. They also made the basket raise up to waist level so players don’t have to bend down. And since the basket is removable, tennis facilities can have multiple baskets, so the machine keeps working after one is filled.

The Tennibot app allows the user to choose where to pick up balls — for instance, around the net, at the fence, or all over the court. A fish-eye camera on Tennibot scans the court, then the onboard computer analyzes the information and moves Tennibot around the court. The machine also can “learn” a player’s hitting pattern over time, making collection more efficient. The rechargeable battery keeps the unit powered for about five hours.

The Tennibot app also keeps track of the number of balls it has collected, so players know how many they’ve hit over a session. The data can then be shared on social media.

Tennis Industry Innovation

In March, Tennibot won the grand prize in the Tennis Industry Association’s inaugural Tennis Industry Innovation Challenge, a competition to identify innovative and creative products or services. From the 37 Innovation Challenge applicants, six finalists were chosen to give five-minute presentations to a panel of judges and an industry audience at a meeting in Orlando, Fla.

“Tennibot has the potential to help coaches and players of all skill levels maximize their time on the court and improve their overall tennis experience,” says TIA Executive Director Jolyn de Boer.

“Tennibot impressed our judges panel in all criteria — from the relevance of the concept to its uniqueness, execution, benefits and feasibility,” adds Innovation Challenge moderator Carlos Salum, president of Salum International Resources and a member of the SportsCouncil Silicon Valley.

Eletrabi isn’t new to innovation competitions. Tennibot’s first win was at Auburn University’s inaugural Tiger Cage Competition in 2015. Most recently, out of 600 products, Tennibot was one of a handful chosen to present at the “breatkthrough” stage at the Collision Conference in New Orleans.

Preproduction and Preorders

Currently, Tennibot is in the preproduction stage. “We’re getting our manufacturers lined up, taking pre-orders and closing our seed round,” says Eletrabi, who is using his business administration skills (in addition to a Ph.D. in engineering from Auburn, he also has an MBA) to bring his product to players. As of May, there were about 325 preorders.

“We want to get up to about 400 preorders before we start taking payment,” he notes. “Right now, we’re taking reservations and contact information, then we’ll send a link to order the unit when it’s ready, likely this summer.”

Eletrabi says about 60 percent of preorders are from individuals, and about 40 percent from clubs and facilities. Players in at least 38 countries have contacted him about Tennibot.

“This has been such a fun journey,” Eletrabi says. “Combining my love of tennis with engineering — and finding a way to help people truly enjoy this sport — has been so gratifying for me, and for our whole team.”

For information on Tennibot, visit tennibot.com or contact Haitham Eletrabi at haitham@tennibot.com or 334-444-8968.

 

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