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Tennis ball robot eliminates hassle

AUBURN, ALA. — What happens when a post-doctoral engineering researcher becomes an avid tennis player? You get creative, innovative ideas on how to make the game of tennis better and more enjoyable for everyone.

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That was the case when Dr. Haitham Eletrabi, an engineering researcher at Auburn University, started playing tennis about nine years ago. “I fell in love with the sport and was playing nearly every day,” he 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 once and for all.”

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

Tennibot (tennibot.com), 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 elegantly designed 25-pound droid can roam the court while players are playing or practicing, then return balls directly, so players spend more time hitting balls 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.”

Rise of the Machine

In fact, it was comments from users that prompted Eletrabi and his team to modify Tennibot to hold up to 70 balls in the basket (vs. the initial 35 balls). They also made the ball basket raise up to waist level so players don’t have to bend down. And since the basket is easily replaceable, tennis facilities can have multiple baskets, allowing the machine to keep working after one basket is filled.

Tennibot comes with an app that allows the user to choose where to pick up balls, for instance at the net, at the fence, or all over the court. A fish-eye camera allows the device to panoramically scan 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 even more efficient. The rechargeable battery keeps the unit moving for about five hours.

The Tennibot app also keeps track of the number of balls collected, so players know how many they’ve hit. It also allows the user to share the practice data on social media. When the player is finished on court, Tennibot is easily picked up by the handle and rolls on two large front wheels to the car or storage.

Tennis Industry Innovation

In March, Tennibot won the grand prize in the Tennis Industry Association’s inaugural “Tennis Industry Innovation Challenge,” a “Shark Tank”-like competition to identify the most innovative and creative product or service in the tennis industry. 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 key meeting in Orlando, Fla.

“All the finalists had great ideas, but I was thrilled to win,” Eletrabi says. “At first, I was worried because there was so much that I wanted to tell the judges in just five minutes.”

“Tennibot is clearly an innovative and useful product that has the potential to help coaches and players of all skill levels maximize their time on the tennis court and improve their overall tennis experience,” says Tennis Industry Association (TIA) Executive Director Jolyn de Boer. “The TIA was pleased to offer this unique platform to entrepreneurs, with an eye toward helping increase the focus on the business of tennis and ways to increase tennis participation and enjoyment for all consumers.” (A second Innovation Challenge, along with a tennis Tech Fair, will take place Aug. 28-29 in New York City. Visit TennisIndustry.org.)

“Tennibot really impressed our judges panel in all criteria—from the relevance of the concept, to its uniqueness, execution, benefits and feasibility,” adds international performance strategist Carlos Salum, president of Salum International Resources and a member of the SportsCouncil Silicon Valley, who was the moderator for the Innovation Challenge. “All of our finalists had high-quality innovative products and services, which bodes well for the future of the tennis industry.”

Eletrabi and Tennibot aren’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. The product also has been shown at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas the past two years.

Preproduction and Preorders

Eletrabi credits being in a college town like Auburn with helping provide the support to succeed. “Having the right team in place is crucial for a startup,” he notes. “You can’t do it all by yourself. You need a great team to be successful.”

Currently, Tennibot is in the preproduction stage. “We’re getting our manufacturers lined up, taking pre-orders from customers, and closing our seed round,” says Eletrabi, who is using his business 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 for Tennibot.

“We want to get up to about 400 preorders before we start actually taking payment for Tennibot,” 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, most likely this summer.”

Eletrabi says so far, about 60 percent of pre-orders are coming from individuals, and about 40 percent from clubs and facilities. And they’ve been coming in from around the world—tennis players and clubs in at least 38 countries have contacted him.

“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. We’re still learning so much, and really enjoying it all.”

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

 

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