Robot Soccer 2011
I’ve been interested in robotics since I was a child. There were several times when I was young that I was going to spend a large chunk of my savings on a toy robot (before they were widespread and commercially available, I used to look through Edmund’s Scientific catalogs at the primitive robots). Now I follow several robotics blogs. The best one right now is http://spectrum.ieee.org/robotics
The most interesting developments in recent years all have to do with autonomous robotics. The Roomba (or robotic floorvacs in general) is a common example of this. The Roomba Robotic Floorvac is autonomous in that it makes its own decisions about where to go, where to avoid, and when it is finished. You do not need to program it or provide it with the floor plan of your house in order for it to do its job vacuuming. It also knows how to avoid stairs on its own.
RoboCup is an annual international robotics competition and the star events in this competition are the soccer events. These are not remote-controlled robots; they actually know how to play soccer. Each side’s goalposts are a different color so the robots know how to orient themselves based on the goal posts and the lines in the soccer “field.” There are two main divisions, humanoid robots and “other.” The humanoid robots are bipedal. Within the humanoid category, there are several sizes, the largest being adult sized robots. The larger sizes are not interesting yet; they spend most of their energy just trying to balance and not fall over and they basically behave like zombies. If they fall over, they cannot correct themselves. The next size down are teen robots and then KidSize robots. The KidSize humanoid robots are actually quite interesting. They can make passes to teammates, the goalies can dive (more like a controlled fall) to make a save, and they can stand back up if/when they fall over. They know to go back to the center of the field after a goal is scored.
For the past several years, a team from Germany has cleaned up in the KidSize humanoid category, but this year the USA took the cup thanks to a team of graduate students from Virginia Tech. The soccer games themselves are not particularly interesting, but the implications for robotics are quite interesting. It should be stated that the end goal of these roboticists is to have a team of AdultSize humanoid robots that can beat the best team of human players in the year 2050. For now it seems like a lofty goal, but given the advances made in the past five years alone, it may be possible before the year 2050.