Could Robots One Day Beat Humans in a Game of Soccer?
Kagan Pittman posted on July 17, 2015 | 7405 views

The FIFA World Cup, founded in 1930, has been one of the most popular sporting events in the world, pitching national teams against one another in sometimes epic and occasionally embarrassing clashes. In June of 1993, a group of Japanese researchers founded the Robot J-League (in reference to the Japanese Professional soccer league), to promote science and technology through the game of soccer.

The Robot J-League was later renamed the Robot World Cup Initiative, or RoboCup for short. The first official RoboCup games and conference were held in 1997 with over 40 participating teams and over 5,000 spectators.

Robot's in Soccer Today

Eight years later, the competition continues to attract teams from all over the world. Robots compete in a handful of categories based on size (Standard, Small, Middle and Humanoid) and format (real and simulated).

Photo courtesy of RoboCup (Flickr.com/photos/Robocup2013).

Photo courtesy of RoboCup (Flickr.com/photos/Robocup2013).

Dr. Daniel Polani, professor of artificial intelligence, manages the University of Hertfordshire’s robot team taking part in this year’s event. Each of the four robotic players on the Bold Hearts team stand at knee-height, resembling extra small humanoids.

The little robots differentiate the ball from surrounding objects by color. Recognizing its red hue, they track and pursue it. The robots move at a clunky walking pace, a bit clumsy and prone to falling over.

When a robot manages to reach the ball, they analyze their environment and kick the ball toward the goal. Often the robots accidently kick one another by accident. "The kicking is most likely unintentional," said Dr. Polani in an article by Jane Wakefield with BBC News.

Challenges and Goals

Challenges in the robots design fall into the estimated 50,000 lines of code to be programmed in a bot preparing for a match. The robots must be programmed to walk, run and kick while still maintaining balance, visual perception of the ball, other players and maintain self-localization. Playing a dynamic game like soccer with a consistently moving objective pushes teams AI-programming skills to the extreme.

The University of Hertfordshire’s robots took park in last year’s RoboCup as well, coming in second place in the Humanoid categories KidSize Competition. "It is much harder this year, and many of the rules have changed, so we have to start again from the beginning and work our way up,” said Dr. Polani.

Since last years challenge, even the playing field has changed, presenting new challenges to overcome. "The field now has Astroturf grass, which is much longer than last years' flat green carpet," Polani said over email with ENGINEERING.com. It makes it much harder to walk and a main challenge is to provide an adaptive balancing algorithm that can respond to the "wobble" introduced by the new grass."

As stated above, color was used to identify objects in previous tournaments. This year, programmers will need to ensure their robots can identify the shape of the ball and goal posts. 

"The ball is now no longer red, but a non-descript white/greyish background with possible print. This makes it difficult to use colour any longer to distinguish the ball on the field, and one has to resort to additional techniques to identify the ball. The goals are no longer yellow-coloured, but white, which means that one has to distinguish them from the background lines of the field in a suitable way (again no colour identification is possible)."

The huge jump in difficulty and changes in design of the playing field is a result of the RoboCup Federations desire for increased realism, adds Polani. "Which means that, while technology advances every year, the teams play a constant catch-up with the difficulties posed by the increasingly challenging rules. The idea is to push the technological advance towards more and increasingly flexible robotic solutions."

The RoboCup Initiative’s ultimate goal is to have a team of humanoid robots face off against the latest FIFA champions around 2050. The hope is decades of technological advancement and AI refinement will be able to take down the then-reigning champions.

This year’s RoboCup World Championships is taking place in Hefei, China, from July 17th to the 23rd.

Watch the video below to see some of the action from RoboCup 2014.

To learn more about the RoboCup World Championships, visit www.robocup.org.

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