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Courtesy of New Scientist Magazine
By Bob Johnstone
A soccer team from Melbourne competing in a world cup? As the satirical magazine Private
Eye would say, "Shurly some mistake here." But no, the RMIT Raiders are for
real. The side, a product of the computer lab at the Royal Melbourne Institute of
Technology, has been in Nagoya in Japan this week trying to win RoboCup '97, the
first-ever soccer tournament for robots.
The rules for the tournament were straightforward. Each team consisted of six robots--a
striker, three players who could both defend and attack, a goalkeeper and a replacement.
The robots were not permitted to charge or otherwise interfere with each other and there
was no off-side rule, though that is likely to change in future events to make robot
soccer more like the real thing.
Matches, lasting 10 minutes each, were played on a walled pitch 32 meters square. No human
intervention was allowed during the match. An actual-size soccer ball was used and the
robots kept track of the ball using input from on-board or overhead cameras.
The Australians were up against two teams from the US and two from Japan. The side from
Osaka University were favorites to take out the RoboCup trophy, with the main challenger
being the Dream Team from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. But before
he left, the leader of the Australian team, computer science professor, Andrew Jennings,
felt the Raiders could be the tournament's surprise packet. Whereas their opponents were
using adapted model cars, the Raiders were based on a plastic chassis, said Jennings.
Propelled by balls rather than wheels, the chassis needs no turning circle, enabling the
robots to whiz off in any direction. "That's a big advantage in any game of
soccer," said Jennings. Maneuverability, more so than speed or strategy, is the key
research problem in robot soccer, he said. But the RMIT Raiders, 35 centimeters high and
resembling upright vacuum cleaners in appearance, were no slouches on the field
either--they can move at speeds of up to 4 meters a second. "Sleek black blobs"
is how one observer described them.
The robot's developer, Andrew Price, a postdoc in computer systems engineering, believes
the chassis, because of its maneuverability, will become the standard for future
tournaments. Being made of plastic rather than metal could have major commercial
implications for the future of robotics too.
The cost of producing something in plastic is much less than the machine tooling for
making precision mechanical parts. "Once you've got the moulds, you can turn them out
for virtually nothing," said Jennings. "We can probably drop the unit cost of a
robot from of the order of tens of thousands of dollars to maybe even a few hundred
RoboCup is the brainchild of Hiroaki Kitano, a scientist at the Sony Computer Science
Laboratory in Tokyo, who lists his interests as "the emergence and evolution of
intelligence." He advertised for entries on his Web page, which is where Jennings
came across the competition. Kitano believes that, in terms of its potential to accelerate
the pace of technological development, the tournament could rival the Apollo landings on
For one thing, open competition will make sure that innovations are not kept under wraps.
"Competitions are an ideal way of learning a lot of things very quickly,"
Jennings commented. "The natural competitive urge is to watch what other people have
done and learn from it." To ensure that the lessons are freely available, RoboCup
eligibility rules insist that teams present the scientific aspects of their work during a
workshop held in parallel with the tournament.
From an Australian point of view, the tournament was a way of participating at a higher
level than would otherwise be possible. "An international competition levels the
playing field," Jennings says, "because it depends more on raw technology, and
less on how much financial backing you can get." The competition was also great fun
and a sharp learning curve for students. RMIT undergraduates volunteered to help assemble
the robots in a garage in Geelong.
Nowhere are robot contests more popular than in Japan. The Japanese call the contests
"Robocon" and broadcast them routinely on prime-time television where they
attract millions of viewers. In Nagoya, the RMIT researchers can expect to undergo a
seemingly endless round of interviews and press conferences. Win or lose, the Raiders will
do much to enhance Australia's image as a nation of technology developers.
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