What a kick!

For scientist playing robotic soccer, it’s more than just a game.

The goalkeeper stops another bullet, returning the ball to his teammate downfield. The player takes control, scurries to the opposite end and scores. The crowd goes wild!

Typical soccer match? Hardly. The soccer field is a Ping-Pong table and the soccer ball is a really bright orange golf ball. Players are cube-shaped robots barely seven inches tall. You could fit an entire team in your backpack.

This is the world of RoboCup, where soccer meets science.

Team Scream

Since 1997, scientists have met once a year in the RoboCup International research meetings and competitions, challenging each other to robot soccer matches. It doesn’t matter that machines are playing the game–their coaches and fans really get into the action.

“You know they’re robots, but you still scream at them,” says Professor Manuela Veloso, head of the Carnegie Mellon University team.

There are four leagues in RoboCup, and the cube-shaped mini robots are the lightweight class. Each is run like a remote-controlled car, with a computer on the sidelines sending commands by radio to the five team members.

A second league contains robots that are about 20 inches in diameter and have their own on-board computers. The third uses Sony robotic dogs that actually kick instead of nudge the ball. The fourth league doesn’t move at all–it’s a sophisticated video game played on the computer screen by teams of 11 computer programs.

Calling the Plays

In all four soccer leagues, robots and computer programs run the show. There is no human control. Each robot has to figure out where the goal is, where the opponents are and whether it should pass the ball to a teammate or score.

Robotic soccer players aren’t perfect. One group of mini-robots was so strong that they spun the ball off the field every time. Professor Veloso says that watching the Sony robots can be doggone funny. “The dogs look like 6-year-old Rids playing soccer. They all rush at the ball but don’t really understand teamwork yet.”

Robots to the Rescue

But RoboCup is more than just a game. It has a serious side.

Soccer is just a way for us to understand how to cope with a challenging, dynamic, uncertain environment in which we have to make quick decisions,” says Ms. Veloso.

One project they’re developing is a team of rescue robots–ones that would go in after natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes and search for survivors.

Besides rescue robots, the researchers have another goal. By 2050, they’d like to field a team of robot soccer players and beat the human World Cup winning team!


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