It shoots, it scores . . .


NUI Maynooth is going solo in its bid to win the international ‘RoboCup’, a soccer competition for little robots, reports CLAIRE O’CONNELL

LIKE ALL THE best soccer competitions, it came down to an edge-of-your-seat penalty shootout. The striker measured up the situation, took four steps towards the ball and scored, grabbing victory for the team and supporters, who had travelled to China to witness the excitement.

But this was no ordinary match. For one thing, the players are only about half a metre tall. For another, they are not human. And this penalty shoot-out involved no goalkeeper, it was just about getting the ball across the line faster than the other team did.

This is RoboCup, an international competition attended by thousands each year, where teams of autonomous robots battle it out for coveted titles in soccer and other activities.

“The rationale behind it is to create an exciting environment for people to demonstrate and research artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics,” says Rick Middleton, a research professor at NUI Maynooth, who has been involved in RoboCup since 2002. “The whole thing is really aimed at advancing research in AI.”

Last year, the NUManoids team from NUIM and Newcastle University in Australia walked away (or rather their robots did) with a top prize in standard soccer, beating GTCM United’ 08 from GeorgiaTech and Carnegie Mellon.

Next month, however, NUIM will be going it alone in the competition. It is training up its robots on campus using a specially constructed pitch in the Hamilton Institute.

The programmers need to develop software so the robots can work out for themselves where they are on the pitch, how to get to the ball and what the best strategy is for working with their team-mates during the two 10-minute halves. And during play, the humans behind the team have to sit on their hands.

“Often when you see it, you’d think of ‘robot wars’ which has remote control, but this is totally without any of that direction,” says Middleton. “The robots have a small computer and you have to put the code on a memory stick and then you switch them on and let them go, and that’s it.”

USING A CAMERA, various sensors and a wireless connection with the other two team mates, each robot keeps track of the ball, the colour-coded goalposts and where the players are on the pitch throughout the match, which is no mean feat.

“They have positional play, they will say who is a defender and who is an attacker, and normally the defender will not run right up the field and get the ball, because that’s quite dangerous because there’s very little defence left,” says Middleton, adding that the robots have no “sat-nav” to help them along. “So there are some interesting decisions to be made there.”

Working out where you are and where best to move next might sound straightforward to a human, but it requires large amounts of programming for a machine, says Middleton. “We do this very naturally, but it’s quite difficult for the robots. You can get a basic version of it up and running in a few months, but we have been working on this for years.”

The NUIM team, RoboÉireann, is currently preparing for RoboCup 2009, to be held in Austria next month. “Mostly before the competition the teams don’t say too much about exactly what they are doing, but you know pretty much what the basic idea is,” says Middleton, who notes there is a serious side to complement the fun.

“At the end of the competition each team publishes a team report, and there’s a symposium where they talk about different research advances.”

As well as soccer, the competition also has a division for search and rescue trials, where robots have to navigate fake disaster zones and home in on signs of human life like heat, carbon dioxide or sounds.

“The robots are meant to go in there and as autonomously as possible find these fake people,” says Middleton. “And the longer-term application for that is in real disasters and things like firefighting, where ideally you could send a robot in initially rather than sending in a person.”