ATHENS, Ohio, June 6 -- The World Cup isn't the only high-stakes soccer tournament hitting Asia this month. Teams of soccer-playing robots will compete at RoboCup, an international exhibition of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) technology to be held June 19 to 25 in Fukuoka, Japan.
The tournament aims to foster research in robotics and AI. About 1,000 scientists and engineers representing 200 teams and 30 countries will participate in RoboCup, which is expected to draw about 100,000 visitors, according to the RoboCup organization.
RoboCup isn't just fun and games, though. The technology developed to make machines play soccer also could be used to create a fleet of autonomous robots that could search for survivors at disaster sites, serve as security guards or function in other situations too risky for humans.
"The entertainment value of RoboCup is not to be underestimated, but the robots have more value to us by going into dangerous situations, cleaning up nuclear waste or working by our sides," said David Chelberg, project leader of the Robobcats and an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science in Ohio University's Russ College of Engineering and Technology.
Chelberg and computer engineer Maarten Uijt de Haag (OUSH-duh-hog) will lead a team of 12 Ohio University undergraduate and graduate engineering students at the competition, where they'll join the ranks of other American universities such as Cornell, Carnegie Mellon and John Hopkins. The tournament is the culmination of three years of research by the Ohio University team, which was charged with the tricky task of developing computer software that could help the robots "think" of strategies to kick the ball through the opponent's goal. It's a problem that nine faculty members and almost 50 students from various engineering and scientific fields have struggled to solve.
Their answer involves a powerful computer, a watchful camera and some old-fashioned elbow grease. The robots move on three multidirectional wheels and are equipped with a metal "kicker" that can boot the ball (an orange golf ball) past the goalie. A light-sensitive video camera mounted in the ceiling above the playing field, which is about the size of a ping-pong table, transmits the location of the players back to a computer. The machine employs artificial intelligence to devise the best play strategy. The program relies on a concept called distributed computing, in which unused computer power from the idle robots is sent to the droids that are actively racing for the shot.
But Chelberg and Uijt de Haag are quick to point out that the team didn't brainstorm for three years simply to teach robots how to play soccer; the science has several potential practical applications, too.
With a grant from NASA, Ohio University computer scientist and Robobcat team member Lonnie Welch is adapting the technology for the agency's Advanced Information System Technology Program, which aims to establish a network of space satellites known as "Sensor Web" that will collect, process and store scientific data on Earth's atmosphere, land and oceans.
The engineers would like to use the technology for other applications as well, including a fleet of mobile robots that could be embedded in buildings to respond to emergency situations, either by transmitting information to rescue crews or even dousing fires. The software also could be used to coordinate the flights of uninhabited airborne vehicles (UAV), an experimental aircraft that could be used for surveillance at international borders or to survey disaster sites, said Uijt de Haag, who specializes in avionics research. In addition, Chelberg and Ohio University computer scientist Cynthia Marling are beginning to explore the novel idea of using a team of robot dogs "trained" to assist people with Alzheimer's disease.
And yet the excitement of competing against other teams, as well as the thrill of the game, have drawn a number of students to the RoboCup project, said Uijt de Haag, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science. Students not only benefitted from the unique educational and research experience RoboCup offers, but they also have been key to the success of the project.
"Things like RoboCup and the UAV have made students very excited, because it's like playing with toys when they were young," he said.
This school year, the university shared the fun and scientific puzzles posed by RoboCup with an even younger crowd -- area middle-school students. In conjunction with Ohio University's College of Education, the engineers sponsored RoboCup Junior, an initiative designed to engage disadvantaged students in rural schools in science and technology and encourage them to pursue careers in those fields. The project culminated in May with the first annual Southeast Ohio RoboCup Junior Competition. Fifteen seventh-grade students from Alexander Junior High School in Shade and Logan Middle School in Logan participated, using Legos Mindstorms kits to build robots and design software to control them.
But now, the Robobcats are focused on bringing back a trophy from Japan. The team will compete in the small-size robot league, one of five soccer competitions that includes a humanoid match. RoboCup also will feature an international RoboCup Junior tournament and an exhibition of robot rescue technology, in which teams of robots are used to find victims at disaster sites.
"RoboCup shows the best of what the world has to offer," Chelberg said.
The Robobcats team traveling to Japan includes undergraduate students Mark Tomko, Benjamin Lachman, Neil Williams and Matt Good and graduate students Matthew Gillen, Zhou Qiang, Ted Smith, Tim Henning and Adam Landis. Three other students, undergraduates Mike Dorohoff and Adam Stevens and graduate student David Parrott, will assist the team at RoboCup.
In addition to Chelberg and Uijt de Haag, faculty members involved in the project are Carl Bruggeman, Douglas Lawrence, Jae Lew, Cynthia Marling, David Matolak, Shawn Ostermann, Lonnie Welch and Bob Williams, all from the Russ College of Engineering and Technology.
The project is supported in part by NASA, Ohio University's 1804 Fund and the Russ College of Engineering and Technology.