Between bouts of eating this Thanksgiving weekend you might want to head outside and toss a football, shoot some hoops or kick a soccer ball around to get a little exercise. If the weather’s nasty (or if you live in Buffalo) perhaps Ping Pong or a game of pool will do.
 
Can’t get any people in your house off the couch? Ask a robot.
 
Of course “a robot that plays soccer” could mean anything from a little cube 15 centimeters high that pushes a tiny ball on a tabletop field, to supersize automatons. For holiday fun I’ve collected videos of humanoids as well as nonhuman-like contraptions that play a real game on a real surface—with a little latitude for “real.” Each video (below) follows a caption explaining it.
 
I’ve checked these out because simply searching the Web can be deceiving. For example, in March a video went viral that showed an industrial-like robot arm pushing a professional table tennis player to the limit in a fast-action series of incredibly skilled shots; it turned out to be a doctored marketing stunt for the KUKA Robot Group.
 
If you’re more interested in humanoid robots competing in Olympic-style events such as weightlifting and kung fu, check out the RoboGames. And if you know of other worthy robot athletes, post a note and link in the Comments section below. Let’s see how many we can find!
 
BASEBALL: It is sometimes said that the hardest task to master in sports is hitting a baseball. Researchers at Ishikawa Watanabe Laboratory in Japan have devised one robot that pitches and another that bats. Neither chews tobacco.
PING-PONG, humanoid: Table tennis seems to attract robotics researchers. Here, two humanoid robots developed at Zhejiang University in China hold a long volley with one another.
PING-PONG, nonhumanoid: This contraption from Omron Automation Lab plays pretty well. As is often the case, if a bot does not have to look or move like a human, it can often perform better.
SOCCER: “Football,” or fútbol, is the planet’s most popular sport. Just like the World Cup there is a RoboCup for robotic soccer teams, complete with different classes by size of robot. The video below shows a match between the U.S. and Japan, with two-robot teams, in the “kid-size” category.
AIR HOCKEY: Huh? Air hockey isn’t a sport. Well, when you see this little, round tabletop bot, you’ll be impressed. Equally impressive is that its maker, Jose Julio of 3D Systems, created it with parts from a 3-D printer.
BILLIARDS: I know, it’s “pool,” and not necessarily viewed by some as a sport—but how many random balls on a table can you sink in a row? This robot built by Thomas Nierhoff at Technical University of Munich in Germany pockets five!
BADMINTON: Don’t think this sport is difficult? Try it. The robot from the Flanders Mechatronics Technology Center in Belgium can only move on a single track, back and forth across the court. A birdie—or shuttlecock—however, flies in varied trajectories, so just tracking and swatting it is an accomplishment.
BASKETBALL: Okay, this robot at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh is just a big arm that shoots free throws, but it seems to do that well.