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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 dollars."

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 the Moon.

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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