Chasing the RoboCup
Ph.D. candidate Karl Muecke works on a DARwIn III series robot
By Albert Raboteau
A soccer team from the United States will go to China this summer and try to defeat accomplished teams from other nations.
But its players aren’t heading to Beijing for the Olympics. In fact, they aren’t even human.
Three highly advanced robots will be representing the United States, and Virginia Tech, in the 2008 RoboCup finals from July 14 to 20 in Suzhou, China.
The RoboCup competition, first held in 1997, is intended to spark developments in robotics and artificial intelligence that could see robots become more useful to humans in rescue operations, assisting the disabled or elderly, and other applications.
Virginia Tech became the first team from the United States to participate in RoboCup’s humanoid league when it qualified for last year’s competition in Atlanta.
With considerable corporate support, the university’s team will make a far longer journey to compete this year.
“Corporate support is helping us a lot,” said Dennis Hong, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering who is faculty advisor to TEAM VT DARwIn. “This is an expensive competition. It’s in China. We need to bring all our students and a lot of equipment, including three of our humanoid robot soccer players.”
DARwIn is an acronym for Dynamic Anthropomorphic Robot with Intelligence, which Hong and his students have been using for their humanoid robots since 2004.
The goal of RoboCup organizers and competitors is for a team of robots to be able to defeat a world champion team of human soccer players by the year 2050.
RoboCup is one of several high-profile scientific competitions intended to speed technological advances. Other examples include a competition to develop a car capable of getting 100 miles to the gallon and the U.S. Department of Defense sponsored races for vehicles programmed to drive themselves.
Hong was also an advisor to the Virginia Tech team that placed third in the DOD’s autonomous vehicle race last year. Along with Hong, TEAM VT DARwIn includes current and former students, and a representative from SAIC, one of several companies sponsoring the team.
Altria Group, Inc., and National Instruments also funded the team, as did Pat Artis, a College of Engineering alumnus. TORC Technologies LLC, a company founded by Virginia Tech alumni that is located in the university’s Corporate Research Center, provided technical support.
RoboCup has multiple leagues for different sizes and types of robots. TEAM VT DARwIn is competing in the kid-size, humanoid league for two-legged robots up to 60 centimeters tall.
The rules of competition get tougher each year, Hong said. Last year’s challenge was for teams of two-robots -- one goalie, one striker. This year’s more challenging games will be three-on-three with collaborative play.
The roots of TEAM VT DARwIn go back to 2004, when Hong and his students created a two-legged humanoid robot as part of their research into bipedal locomotion.
Since then, he and his students have created progressively more advanced versions. For RoboCup, they are fielding the DARwIn III series.
"It’s a refinement," Hong said. "Much stronger, faster, smarter."
Developing robots that can walk around like people, as opposed to relying on wheels, is important if robots are to be able to realize their full potential to help humans, Hong said.
"For these robots to live with us, they have to have a similar form, a locomotion method so they can actually climb stairs instead of us building a special ramp for the robots," he explained.
One recent sunny afternoon, a few members of Hong’s team were inside a dark lab in Randolph Hall, gathered around a miniature soccer pitch, getting their robots -- DARwIn IIIa, IIIb, and IIIc -- ready for the upcoming competition.
Among those working on the robots was Jesse Hurdus, a native of McClean, Va., who earned his master’s in mechanical engineering in spring 2008, participated in RoboCup in 2007, and was to be the team leader in China.
"RoboCup is an amazing place to be," he said, "You have so many different robots, developed all over the world. People with completely different backgrounds and educations [are] all competing on the same challenge and trying to do the same things. You really see a lot of different perspectives, which is always very interesting."
Hurdus added, "I'm also really looking forward to seeing us score a couple of goals."
Hong said each DARwIn III series robot costs about $18,000. They run on advanced software and are packed with sensors and motors.
RoboCup team members are allowed to program their robots to perform specific functions on the field, such as forward, defender, and goalie. But the robots have to play autonomously, not by remote control, for two 15-minute periods.
In other words, participants prepare their robots as best they can, then hope their squad will perform as expected.
As Team VT DARwIn member and second year mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate Karl Muecke of Purcellville, Va., pointed out: "It’s almost like being a coach."
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