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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 million viewers.

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 remote controlled.

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 battery powered.

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