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This article is from the In-Depth Report Science and Soccer's World Cup

RoboCup 2010: Could Robot versus Human Be Far Behind? [Slide Show]

Full-size biped robot strikers debut at this year's competition as human World Cup teams play on in South Africa
RoboCup, Aldebaran, Robot



© ALDEBARAN ROBOTICS

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As the World Cup races forward in South Africa a different kind of soccer tournament recently kicked off in Asia. And whereas debates in Cape Town and Johannesburg may center on the Jabulani ball's aerodynamics or the vuvuzela's "unique" sound, in Singapore coaches are more likely to worry whether their favorite player has blown a fuse, so to speak.

RoboCup 2010 marks the 14th year that hundreds of roboticists pit their mechanized creations against each other in five different soccer leagues. Some are reserved for two-legged, two-armed humanoids, whereas others are for small, wheeled robots that look like polka-dotted coffee cans. There's even a league just for virtual robots, where computer programs go head-to-head to test the limits of cooperative artificial intelligence.

The goal at RoboCup is not just to win but to push robotics in ways that apply in the real world—and to eventually build a team of robots that can beat the human World Cup champions. Humanoid robots have made great strides since their debut in the 2002 RoboCup, where they competed in four events: a penalty kick competition, a race, freestyle demonstrations, and the aptly titled "Standing Still on One Leg."

This year, some humanoids are playing soccer matches. The games are a little slower than the ones taking place in South Africa, but the bots attempt to pass, dribble and shoot, just like their human counterparts.

New this year is an "AdultSize" league. Previously, no robot could be taller than 1.2 meters. This year, however, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., has entered CHARLI, a 1.5-meter-tall plastic and metal creation that resembles Sonny, the sympathetic robot character from the 2004 movie I, Robot.

CHARLI will have to locate the soccer ball, dribble it up the court, and kick it through the goal to win. It is not as easy as it sounds, Dennis Hong, director of Virginia Tech's Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory, explained via e-mail. As robots get taller balancing becomes tougher, he added. CHARLI's ball-handling skills will be tested against bots from five other teams in the adult-size league.

Budget Bots
In the smaller humanoid league, 24 teams compete with 60-centimeter-tall, custom-built robots in games of three on three. The only two U.S. teams competing in this league are Virginia Tech's Team DARwIn and the RoboPatriots from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

The RoboPatriots (video) are not going to take on David Beckham anytime soon: Last year, the first year they attended RoboCup, the robots suffered from a vision problem. "Our problem last year was our choice of camera," says GMU computer science professor Sean Luke. Like many RoboCup teams, they programmed their bots to track orange blobs (to represent the orange balls used in the competition). But at last year's venue, the green field was—to GMU's dismay—surrounded by the venue's orange floor. "So our robots saw the orange and thought, 'Oh, a big ball!'" Luke says. The RoboPatriots spent much of their time wandering off the field yet still managed to block more goals than many of their competitors.

Whereas some teams focus on building one über-bot, Luke and his students want to build as many robots as they can, as cheaply as possible. "We want to study how tens or hundreds of them can work together on complex tasks," such as constructing a building or performing disaster response, Luke says. "We want to make these as sophisticated as we can" for a reasonable price.

Each of the RoboPatriots costs about $2,000 to construct, Luke says. (Virginia Tech's robots in 2008 cost $18,000 each.) Luke is confident that his team's robots will fare better this year: They have more sophisticated vision, faster and sturdier parts—and a drive to win (all for the same price tag of $2,000).

"Keep The Ball Moving"
Hardware is less of an issue in the RoboCup's Standard Platform League (SPL), where all participants instead concentrate on writing software to control Nao mini-humanoid robots made by French robotics company Aldebaran Robotics.

This year, the University of Texas at Austin SPL team is focusing on strategy rather than raw power (video from last year's tournament). A main emphasis of the Texas team is to get the ball and move it before the other team can, even if that means the robot is not making a perfect kick. "If we can keep the ball moving, we may be able to beat teams with better skills than we have," says University of Texas team leader and computer science professor Peter Stone.

Virginia Tech's Hong puts it this way: "To quote Sepp Herberger, the famous German football coach, 'The ball is round, so anything can happen.'"

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