Robot soccer tournament proves to be a huge hit

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In the waning minutes of this championship soccer match, the team trailing 2-1 made a strong bid to poke the ball into the goal.

But a skilled goalie, splaying legs to kick away shots, refused to let the orange ball through. So Bowdoin College defeated the University of Texas Austin in a squeaker.

It's important to note that these were robots competing yesterday in the RoboCup 2008 U.S. Open at the Carnegie Science Center on the North Side.

Sony Aibo robots, resembling little dogs, at times seemed clueless and reacted slowly to the ball. Still, the championship game produced oohs and ahhs from the crowd, and several Bowdoin students held their chests after the nerve-racking finale.

The host, Carnegie Mellon University, finished third in the Aibo competition by defeating Brooklyn College 8-0 in the consolation game. But Carnegie Mellon did win the small-robot championship -- a fast-paced game featuring whirling cylindrical robots that shoot the ball 30 mph -- in a 10-0 blowout over the Harvard University/Massachusetts Institute of Technology team.

The finals yesterday topped off a successful three-day competition that involved nine colleges and universities and highlighted advances in team robotics.

The event also featured demonstrations of nanobots, a "robot" six times smaller than an amoeba, that must be viewed under a microscope whose image was projected onto a screen. In future competitions, humanoid Nao robots from France will replace the Aibo, which Sony has quit producing. A Nao competition will be held in July in China during the world championships.

For now, the bipedal Nao robots are slow and clumsy in walking and must balance on one leg to kick the ball. But Carnegie Mellon plans to field a team in China. RoboCup's ultimate goal is to field a robot team by 2050 that can compete against a human team.

During RoboCup games, robots must act on their own without human intrusion.

Carnegie Mellon computer scientist Manuela Veloso said the competition requires robots to use teamwork and react to circumstances. In that way, the competition is unique in robotics, where most achievements have involved one robot doing a single task.

"This involves multiple brains," Dr. Veloso said. "That's what is so beautiful about teamwork."

After each season of competition, teams share software improvements to advance the field. It's helped heighten competition in five years of RoboCup events.

"Soccer is an excuse to create a team problem with clear objectives," Dr. Veloso said.


David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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