"The ultimate goal of the RoboCup project is by 2050, develop a team of fully autonomous humanoid robots that can win against the human world champion team in soccer. "---RoboCup2010.org
With all the excitement surrounding this year's World Cup, another important soccer competition didn't receive the attention it rightfully deserves. Last month saw the return of RoboCup! This annual conference allows robots from all over the world compete to see who is the best on the soccer pitch. There are leagues for bots of all different shapes and sizes from tiny swarms on wheels to humanoid bipeds lumbering after the ball. While these bots can't bend it like Beckham yet, they are getting better. This was the first year with adult-sized robots squaring off on the field. Competition organizers aim to have their automated teams capable of defeating the best human players by 2050. That's an ambitious goal. We've got some great videos and pictures for you after the break.
RoboCup chose to use soccer as the basis of their competition because it's a fun sport that developers could rally behind, but also because the skills inherent to the game can be applied in many other areas. Every robot on the field is autonomous, working from a program to handle the different possible situations on the field. Finding an object (the ball), moving towards it, and carefully manipulating it towards a destination (the goal) is a software routine that has applications in everything from industry to space exploration. In fact, RoboCup has expanded in recent years to include competition in areas like household robotics, education, and rescue. Eventually the skills that teams develop for the soccer pitch are going to allow them to build robots that can work in a variety of fields. In the meantime, the robot footballers are a lot of fun to watch.
Here's a great overview of RoboCup 2010 in Singapore from IEEE Spectrum:
In the RoboRescue competition, scale sized courses are designed to simulate real-world environments. Robots compete to see who can retrieve victims and bring them to safety as quickly as possible without further injury. Barrels are used to represent humans. Is that insulting? Not sure. But I do hope that when a rescue robot comes to save me from a burning building it doesn't confuse me with a trash can.
If you were wondering what an actual full-length robot soccer game looks like, here's the final match in the kid-sized humanoid competition. Last years champions, the Darmstadt Dribblers, defeated the FUmanoids (both are German teams).
As you can see, bipedal robot soccer games are much like human games - long periods of tedium punctuated by moments of great excitement. Some humanoid bots can perform daring dives to block a shot, or mid-field kicks that score, but most of their competition involves long periods of time where robots take tiny steps towards the ball. As we've seen with other robots, bipedal motion is still a very difficult challenge in its own right. Getting bipedal bots to play ball without falling over is an accomplishment.
If you want a much faster game, check out the small-sized league finals. Wheeled bots compete with fast reflexes and interesting cooperative strategies.
RoboCup may be one of the biggest competitions of its kind, but it's far from alone. As we've discussed before, there are dozens of robot soccer competitions all around the world. While none of these events has revealed a team of robots that could go head to head with humans, progress is being made. This is the first year that full grown (adult-sized) bipedal robots competed in RoboCup soccer. Strategies in the virtual, standardized, and wheeled leagues are getting more impressive. Looking at the growing worldwide interest in robot soccer, and the progress that's already been made, it's easy to believe that we will one day have bots that put human players to shame on the field.
The only question is when...is 2050 a good estimate? Developers are dividing the problem into different parts. Standardized bots like the Nao allow programmers to really concentrate on soccer software while other teams keep innovating and expanding the capabilities of the hardware. We could have robots capable of human-like feats in the next few decades. But at that point, soccer really becomes a side issue. Once a robot can walk and talk like us, we're going to be much more interested in it rescuing victims from disasters, helping the elderly in their homes, and other useful applications. So enjoy RoboCup soccer while you can. By the time the bots get really good, they'll be seeking other lines of work.
You can find more great pics from RoboCup 2010 in the organization's photo gallery.
[image credits: Virginia Tech, RoboCup.org]