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Courtesy of New Scientist Magazine
Bob Johnstone investigates the latest soccer-playing machines
THEY WERE TURNING them away from the door last month at the Big Pallet, a 10,000-seat
stadium in the northern Japanese city of Koriyama, 200 kilometers north of Tokyo. The
attraction was not a sumo tournament, or a baseball game, but RoboCon '99, a robot
competition for students.
Among 20 teams in the running that night were 11 from Japan, eight from other--mostly
Asian--countries and, representing Australia, four young engineers from the University of
Queensland's MaD (Manufacturing and Design) Laboratory. The contest was later broadcast by
NHK, Japan's equivalent of ABC TV, to a prime-time audience estimated at more than 15
The MaD lads (and lass) did not win the competition. In fact, they were knocked out in the
first round--own goals and penalties cost them dearly. Nonetheless they returned to
Brisbane well satisfied, having taken out two of the eight awards on offer. The awards
were for design and best new technology.
The UQ team was led by Michael Lucas, a PhD student who this month was named Young
Professional Engineer of the Year by the Institution of Engineers, Australia. The award
recognizes his skill as a designer of champion robots.
RoboCon, which has been going for about a decade, presents a different challenge each
year. In 1998 it was box stacking; in 2000, it will be rugby. That should suit the
Queenslanders, who have been invited back for next year's competition.
This year's challenge was to build soccer-playing robots. An unfortunate choice perhaps,
given the possibility of confusion between RoboCon and RoboCup. The latter is another
Japanese-inspired initiative, whose goal is also to build soccer-playing robots
(Australasian, 30 August 1997). But there are clear differences between the two. RoboCon
is based on mechanics, whereas RoboCup is more electrical, being mainly to do with
communications and software. Also RoboCup robots are completely autonomous. They are
With RoboCon, the machines are semi-autonomous. Control is divided between a computer on
the machine and a human operator. According to Lucas, the semi-autonomy and division of
responsibility produces a better machine. Typical applications for semi-autonomous robots
include deep-sea exploration and mining. But Lucas is more interested in applying his
skills to a new and (certainly in Australia) much faster growing field--animatronic
special effects. We're talking about the moving models you see in museums such as the
dinosaurs and the special effects in animal-based films like Babe.
Essentially lightweight aluminum cages on wheels, the Roobots gather a soccer ball by
gripping it between pneumatic clamps. The ball is raised 60 centimeters, then booted
towards the goal by a piston-powered leg with a lump of metal shaped like a foot on the
end of it. The ball is "kicked" at an angle of 45 degrees and at a speed of up
to 9 meters a second. All the other teams used electrically-driven wheels to pick up and
kick. This was much less efficient than the pneumatic based method, according to Lucas.
Rival universities were amazed that the Australians could do so much with so little.
"Most of the others machines were very complex," said Lucas. "Ours were
simple but did exactly the same thing." The team that beat the Queenslanders, Nagaoka
University of Technology, was faster around the pitch. Lack of speed may have been the
main reason for the Australians limited success in the actual competition, but they
certainly won plaudits for design. When the event was over, many of the other teams paid
the Australian team the compliment of making thorough videos of the Roobots.
Sponsors of the team included Rollerchair, an Adelaide-based maker of wheelchairs which is
interested in the technology for the production of lightweight, easily controllable
wheelchairs, and Festo, a multinational pneumatics company based in Stuttgart, Germany.
Festo is interested in self-contained pneumatic systems, such as the one designed for the
Roobot. The machine is driven by small-sized tanks of compressed air. The compressors are
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