Ed Dougherty is a sports fan, but he watches games differently from the rest of us, seeing possibilities for innovation.
A robot that can automatically draw the lines on a football field, including the logo.
An instrumented football helmet that measures impact and "can tell us a lot about the player."
Blocking dummies that measure both force and the angle of the force.
Dougherty is an engineer working on designs for all these ideas, plus others that are just on his drawing board, such as a camera that "is half-airplane, for use in horse racing and NASCAR."
From a young age, Dougherty said, he realized he didn't want his life's work spent on ideas that "existed before I was born."
Growing up in the city's Overbrook section, at 62d and Haddington, Dougherty "rescued" washing machines from the curb. He saved motors, relays and vacuum tubes from old radios and put them to use. The only time he remembers getting in trouble was for "playing with" the family's oil furnace in the basement. He believes he was destined to work on "gizmo and gadget design."
Dougherty, 60, is now a visiting assistant engineering professor at Villanova who teaches an undergraduate course, "Technology and Innovation." Standing inside Villanova's Pavilion, he can point to a current project, his Wavecam, an "aerial, robotic, mobile" camera, mounted above the basketball court. It stays up there all the time, and was first used for an ESPN game late last season. In this design, Dougherty used scientific principles he first applied to a flight simulator he helped design years ago for NASA when he worked for the Franklin Research Center in Center City.
For an inventor, Dougherty said, sports provides an interesting combination of structure and unpredictability.
"In any sport, there are very specific rules and physical boundaries that help form a solution, but you never know exactly what is going to happen," said Dougherty, who now lives in Wayne. "And that is the challenge."
Typically, Dougherty doesn't just come up with the idea, but the idea that makes the idea work. For the Wavecam, he decided a kind of inverted Stewart Platform would work best. (Science alert: A Stewart Platform typically has an upper and lower platform connected by six legs, which extend and contract to allow an object on the top platform to move easily in all directions as well as tilt and rotate as needed.)
The Wavecam doesn't have legs but high-tech fiber lines, "kind of like a marionette," Dougherty said. The whole apparatus is tied to a trolley system hanging from the ceiling.
A side benefit: Money-making Nike Swooshes cover the platform at Villanova.
"Eventually, I want it to be the size of a softball," Dougherty said of the camera module itself.
He's working on a design for an underwater version of the Wavecam, "and a blimp-like version."
"Some people tend to design things by standards," said George Simmons, an electrical software engineer who has worked with Dougherty on many projects. "Ed says, 'How can I solve this problem with some other area of technology?' . . . He's artistic. He can sketch and draw. And he'll look at how the military is handling a problem, or 'What about NASA, surely somebody there tried to make something lightweight that could help us.' It's sort of rare. Most engineers are introverts. He's out there talking to whoever he needs to talk to try and solve the problem. He just keeps his mind open."
Dougherty didn't invent the Skycam routinely used for NFL and big-time college football telecasts - that was another innovative Philadelphia man, Garrett Brown. But Dougherty was chiefly responsible for designing and building the Skycam, in an office next to the IHOP in Ardmore.
More recently, Dougherty formed a company marketing the Wavecam. This year, he leased two to Villanova and two more to Penn State, which uses them in its indoor football practice facility.
"The line coaches like it the most," said Pat Foley, Penn State's video coordinator, who said Penn State practiced indoors more this spring to take advantage of the Wavecam. "We can see our players' footwork, their handwork, whether they're firing off the ball correctly or not. Once in a while, we'll actually drop the camera about 10 feet off the ground."
"It can actually go like 20 miles an hour, but we have it toned down so it doesn't scare people," Dougherty said.
Dougherty wants the Wavecam to eventually be cheap enough for high schools to buy it just from candy drives, and he believes there will unlimited television channels in the future. Wavecam could fill the endless void. "There might be the Allen Iverson Channel, just following him the whole game," Dougherty said.
At Villanova, the camera hangs from a track across the court from where the basketball teams have their benches. The Big East wanted it that way, Dougherty said, so coaches wouldn't get paranoid about the camera hovering just above their timeout huddles, showing their diagrammed plays.
A 1969 Villanova graduate who also has a master's degree in engineering management from Drexel and a master's in computer science from Villanova, Dougherty isn't just involved in sports projects. He worked for the Franklin Research Center, an off-shoot of the Franklin Institute, for 12 years. Among other projects, he designed robots with artificial intelligence, long before most people had heard the term.
As a kid, Dougherty remembers telling his parents he wanted to be a comedian.
"At nine years old, I figured the best thing you can do in life to make a person smile," Dougherty said. "I still believe that."
So what happened?
"My mom talked me out of it, using the knowledge that I hated smoke," Dougherty said. "Nightclubs are filled with smoke."
She already had him pegged as a future engineer. His maternal grandfather was an electrician on the Pennsylvania Railroad, Dougherty said, and had a patent on a cattle catcher that automatically put on the brakes.
Sports was always a passion.
"My big skill was half-ball," said Dougherty, who played baseball at St. Thomas More High. "I was great at that and spent endless hours in the streets."
Dougherty still remembers Overbrook High graduate Wilt Chamberlain driving up to the neighborhood in a purple Rolls Royce. For a time, Dougherty said, Muhammad Ali lived a few blocks away, just below City Line Avenue.
"We'd deliberately walk by there now and then, but never saw him, just some very nice cars," Dougherty said.
One reason Dougherty stayed in Pennsylvania himself: He wanted to try to repay the kindness of the taxpayers. After his freshman year at Villanova, the state provided him a full scholarship. His father, a World War II veteran, worked for the post office sorting letters. His mother died when he was 17.
He doesn't believe time spent on sports projects is wasted.
"All over the world, rich and poor, healthy and sick, we all enjoy it in our lives," Dougherty said. "It is and should be a high priority in our society, for our mental and physical well-being."
Besides, he said, "There are very few adults who actually work in sports. I don't know the percentages, but I am sure most of society is plenty busy providing needed and valuable services and products."
He's done a lot of work himself, Dougherty said, on devices for the visually impaired, elderly and disabled. He has also designed high-tech foosball and air hockey tables that can sense the location of the ball or puck as it gets near the goal line, he said. "It has a lot of neat features," Dougherty said. "For example, if you are great at air hockey and you are crushing your opponent - if you select the handicapping feature, your goal will get bigger and bigger and the opponent's goal will get smaller."
He also helped develop flexible force sensors in the padding of boxing gloves, using a tiny computer and radio transmitter to measure in real time the force of each punch.
Dougherty has a notebook "with dozens of other sports-related ideas," he said. "I'll get to them some day."