The speedy Stepper 3D is sure to test the field at RoboCup 2011 this July.

If you’re going to get past the Christiano Ronaldos of the world, you’re going to have to run fast. In all probability the developers of the Stepper 3D humanoid robot at Tsinghua University aren’t setting their sights quite so high, but the new robot’s walking speed should have its fellow competitors at this year’s RoboCup shaking in their aluminum alloy footplates.

The video below was released by Tsinghua University’s Robotics and Automation Laboratory and shows off Stepper 3D, the latest from their Robot Walking Group that they plan to enter in this year’s Robotic World Cup Initiative. The Initiative–or RoboCup–is an annual conference that pits internationally-grown robot competitors against each other in a soccer tournament. Everyone knows you need speed on the soccer field, and that’s what Stepper 3D has along with agility and balance. As you’ll see in the omnidirectional walking demonstration, Stepper 3D’s ability to change directions on the fly is impressive and it’s a major improvement over RoboCup competitors of the past.

The powerful gait is generated by a parallel double crank mechanism with 10 degrees of freedom for each lower limb. The technology for Stepper 3D was developed with a torso-less version called Stepper Senior. Showing off its omnidirectional skills in the next two videos, Stepper Senior can clock speeds of 0.65 meters per second. The first time I saw the video I was struck by how human the motions appeared. The smoothness of the gait is a–pardon me–big step forward from the stilted jerks of most bipedal robots. The robots of the future will need to walk as they help us at home and at work, and as they help the disabled and the elderly. The smooth, human-like gait tells me that progress is being made at least on flat surfaces.

I can just picture one of the Steppers 3D getting the ball on mid-stride and dashing down the sideline past his opponent who–walks slower.

Okay, the action’s not going to be blazing fast. For now humans are still faster. But Team Tsinghua is definitely going to need to step up their game as they didn’t fare so well the last time they showed at RoboCup 2009. Their band of TH-MOS robots got destroyed 10-0 by the German-built FUmanoids. The FUmanoids, of course, are nothing to sneeze at as they’ve placed second in the last two RoboCups. I wonder if the FUmanoids or other competitors have similarly been infused with a sudden pep in their step. Maybe they haven’t and Team Tsinghua released the videos to send a message as a form of robot developer trash talking but instead of something like Kevin Garnett shooting off at the mouth it’s a video of robots walking really fast.

I love the idea behind RoboCup: using the game of soccer to develop robotics and promote science and technology. The robots operate autonomously during play, utilizing programs that determine how they will find the ball, control the ball, and score a goal. The games are also fun to watch. This year’s contest takes place in Istanbul between July 5 and July 11. The great thing is that RoboCup is just one of several ongoing competitions that use competitive soccer as an arena for robotics development. They’re great systems to competitively tap the creativity and genius of developers.

RoboCup’s ultimate mission is to generate robots that can beat humans at a soccer match by the year 2050. I agree with fellow Hub writer Aaron Saenz, however, that by the time the robot footballers are capable of beating humans, soccer play will be the least interesting of their skills. Although, getting past Chrinstiano Ronaldo for the first time would definitely make headlines. Heck, it may very well impress his girlfriend. That, undoubtedly, would be another first for robotics developers.

video 1: Stepper 3D
video 2: Senior Stepper 1
video 3: Senior Stepper 2

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.