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Soccer Robots Compete for 6th Annual RoboCup

By Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
June 17, 2002
 
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Robots of all shapes and sizes kick off in an international soccer tournament this week with nearly 200 teams from 30 nations battling it out in a domed stadium in Fukuoka, Japan—not the World Cup but the 6th annual RoboCup. Some players look like cubes on wheels, others like dogs. And this year, for the first time since the games began in 1997, RoboCup will have a humanoid league with 12 teams from six countries. Some coaches—researchers and academics—are betting that a fully autonomous robot soccer team will outplay the human world champions by 2050.


"It sounds like science fiction, but the rate of progress in AI (artificial intelligence) is daunting," said Manuela Veloso, a Carnegie Mellon computer science professor and co-vice president of the RoboCup Federation. She is coaching two Carnegie Mellon teams this year: the CMDragons02 in the small-robot league and CMPack02 in the four-legged category.

The games and a post-tournament symposium were organized to spur interest and research in robotics and artificial intelligence. RoboCup 2002, from June 19th to 25th, is expected to attract 100,000 spectators and over 1,000 scientists and engineers. Germany, Japan, Italy, and the United States are fielding the most teams.

"Soccer is an ideal game to use as a venue for testing ideas in artificial intelligence and robotics because it is a very dynamic game since you have to make a decision now," explained David Chelberg, project director for the Ohio State University (OSU) Robocats, competing in the small-robot league.

"We wanted a team game," said Veloso. "Soccer is easier to envision played by robots than other sports like basketball, baseball. Think of the complexity of catching a ball in the air and shooting it with one arm/hand into a basket." Hockey would be similar to soccer, but soccer is much more popular worldwide.

At OSU an interdisciplinary team of nine faculty members and nearly 50 from students spent three years developing software to allow five chunky robots about the size of a coffee can to "think" on the playing field. Two robot reserves sit on the beach, ready to replace players who suffer injury—or battery weakness.

The Robocat cubes move on three multi-directional wheels and have a metal "kicker" to boot an orange golf ball past the goalie on a field the size of a ping pong table. A light-sensitive video camera above the playing field transmits the action to a computer, programmed to devise strategies. During play, no human hand touches the controls as the robots decide when to kick, run or block goals.

"The good robot teams retain control of the ball the whole time, just like the best human teams," said Raffaello D'Andrea, an electrical engineering professor at Cornell University whose Big Red team won the small-robot division cup in 1999 and 2000 and came in third last year. "We are the first team that actually passes the ball from one player to another."

But D'Andrea emphasized that the competition is not just about winning. The real goal is advancing the field of AI by demonstrating practical applications.

"RoboCup is about teamwork," agreed Veloso. "There are no secrets. The algorithms and the source codes are made available for all the other teams to use."

Over the last six years RoboCup has grown from 12 teams to four robot-playing soccer leagues: small-size, medium-size, four-legged, and now humanoid. In the four-legged league, teams use the Sony AIBO robo-dog but install their own software. Instead of an overhead camera relaying information, the robo-dogs have cameras in their noses and "talk" to each other through wireless communication.

But RoboCup does more than demonstrate how androids can put a ball between goal posts. Machines designed to play soccer can also be adapted to handle tasks that would be difficult or dangerous for humans, such as cleaning up nuclear wastes, exploring space, gathering military intelligence, or searching for survivors after disasters. RoboCup also has a robot rescue division—particularly relevant given the use of robots at the World Trade Center site last year. Robots in this league are tested on their abilities to find mannequins trapped inside a three-story building that has collapsed.

RoboCup teams play to win, but they're out to prove that robots can work in teams, communicate, and complete an assignment without human assistance.

"I am very interested in creating intelligent robots that are really like humans," said Veloso. "I suppose that might frighten some people, but I can't wait until they can learn to talk and co-exist with us and help with our daily tasks."

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