Monday, June 19, 2006
New Scientist reports (edited):
Robots ranging from humanoids, to dogs, to matchboxes on wheels battle it out for a world title in Robocup2006.
Although fun is a big motivation for the 2500 scientists from 36 nations taking part, there is a more serious point to robot football, explains Daniel Polani: "It's a bit like getting computers to play chess, but with more uncertainty. It sets a difficult problem that is helpful to advance the science of robotics."
Polani is the manager of the 'BoldHearts' team from the University of Hertfordshire, UK, playing for the 3D simulated football title. Each team is made up of 11 virtual players who play 10-minute games onscreen.
Each player acts autonomously so, unlike in a videogame, there is no central control. 32 teams are competing for the world title.
Polani's tip for the best matches to watch at RoboCup is the four-legged league. Teams are made up of four of Sony's Aibo robotic dogs, now discontinued to the dismay of researchers. They play on a 6 x 4 metre pitch and use their colour vision to identify the ball, goals and other features.
"It's the most successful because the teams have made so many improvements. Back in 1998 they looked terrible but now the Aibos play very competitive games," says Polani.
There are also two leagues for humanoid bots, classed as either Kidsize, less than 60 centimetres tall, or TeenSize, which is upwards of 60 cm. This level of football is a bit like the Aibo league in 1998, says Polani. "They are at an earlier stage in development because they have a bigger challenge," he says, adding that one of the biggest hurdles is materials.
Finding a robot equivalent of the muscles and tendons that lets human players change direction quickly would be a large improvement over the motors used in most robots, which are best at steady movement in one direction.
The final two of the big soccer titles up for grabs are the middle- and small-size leagues for wheeled robots in teams of four or five. The play in these competitions is more similar to the Aibo league because the basic technology is more simple.
There are also additional prizes to be won for less sporty challenges:
RoboCupRescue sets a task for robots designed to help in emergency situations; RoboCup@Home uses a living room and kitchen set to test domestic robots at chores like fetching and carrying and following a human, and; RoboCupJunior is for teams of young students who have worked on robots designed to perform rescues, play soccer, or dance in formation to music.
When the last of Sony's Aibo robotic dogs rolled off the production line in March 2006, it wasn't just consumer fans who mourned its passing. For years robotics researchers have been using Aibo to test artificial intelligence systems, and they were dismayed by its demise. Their online chatter has been littered with panicked requests for advice on getting hold of remaining stocks and concern over the future of their research projects.
Since its birth in 1999, Aibo has quietly become one of the most widely used robotics research tools. Its skills as a soccer player that could be programmed to compete in teams for the annual RoboCup Four-Legged Challenge are what first attracted many research labs. Soon it was being used much more widely, and it became the closest thing researchers had to a "standard" programmable robot.