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Move over, World Cup; here come the robots

SHARE Move over, World Cup; here come the robots

The U.S. soccer team has been eliminated from World Cup competition, but Carnegie Mellon University's robotic soccer team is still warming up, ready to fly to Paris for next week's RoboCup '98.

Unlike the men's soccer team, which had few aspirations beyond not embarrassing itself, Carnegie Mellon's team is heading to France as the reigning small-robot champion of the international competition."For us, it's a lot of pressure because we won last year," said Manuela Veloso, associate professor of computer science and real-life soccer mom who "coaches" the university's three teams.

"Last year (in Japan) we were clearly much better than the other teams," she said. But because the RoboCup is more research than competition, the Carnegie Mellon team has shared its secrets of success worldwide.

With everyone now knowing the team's moves, "it's going to be a lot tougher for us," she added.

The Carnegie Mellon team has received some media attention in its hometown, but Veloso said that was nothing compared with coverage in other countries, where both soccer and robots enjoy greater popularity. The swarm of reporters was so large at last year's competition in Nagoya that Veloso said she had trouble moving around.

It was front-page news in the French daily Le Monde when Carnegie Mellon beat Paris in last year's RoboCup final. A film crew from the Japanese television network NHK is spending this week in Pittsburgh just to monitor the team's preparations. The BBC has been on the phone pleading with Veloso to ship it one of the robots to photograph.

Unlike other robotic competitions, which usually pit robot against robot in stunts such as running obstacle courses, robotic soccer forces developers not only to build capable machines, but to design software that enables the robots to learn how to work with each other.

This ability for machines to work as teams is essential for potential applications as miniature robots that could perform surgery inside a patient, or teams of robots that could perform firefighting, search and rescue missions or underground mining.

The Carnegie Mellon team includes Veloso, research engineer Sorin Achim and five students. RoboCup competition and research workshops will be July 2-9. At RoboCup, which attracts teams from such countries as Australia, Belgium, Japan, France and England, about 35 teams compete in simulated soccer matches. These are virtual matches played within computers by opposing software programs. Student Peter Stone heads Carnegie Mellon's team.

In the small-robot category, where Carnegie Mellon is the defending champion, nine groups are fielding five-robot teams. Each robot is about 6 inches high and wide and about half as deep. They play on a court the size of a ping-pong table, pushing around a golf ball.

An overhead camera keeps track of the position of the ball, goals and all of the robots. An off-court computer determines how the robots need to move and transmits that information to each robot.

In addition to pushing and blocking the ball, the cubic robots this year have a bumper bar that can extend forward, so they can kick the ball. Student Micheal Bowling heads the Carnegie Mellon team.

This year, three teams - Carnegie Mellon, Paris and Osaka, Japan - will compete using robotic "dogs" developed by Sony Corp. The four-legged robots stand less than a foot tall, but have their own video camera in the dog's head, allowing each to operate autonomously.

The robotic dogs, which creep along at speeds up to five meters a minute, will compete in three-dog teams. Because the dogs are mechanically identical and will use Sony-developed software to walk, the only difference among the teams will be the strategic software, Veloso said.

One of the challenges has been teaching the robots how to keep track of their position relative to the goal and other robots, a task led by student William Uther.

"Humans do this naturally," Veloso said. "I remember my house is there even if I don't see it right now." Robots, on the other hand, need to be taught to remember where things are even if they are no longer looking at those objects.

Sony unveiled the dogs and the computer architecture necessary to run them two weeks ago. The company has developed them as entertainment robots and, Veloso said, probably will market them in a couple of years.

The robots are designed with interchangeable modules. The rear legs, for instance, can be replaced by a wheeled module, allowing the robot to move upright and use its front legs as arms.

Each of the robots used on the Carnegie Mellon team costs about $3,000. Each of the four legs has three joints and the head has three joints. Each dog also has a tail that moves up and down. For now, the tail is used to monitor the rest of the system.

"The tail moves up and down when it's happy," Veloso said.

Dist. by Scripps Howard News Service