Can Soccer-Playing Robots Kick It? Yes They Can!
The world may not agree 100 percent on what to call it, but we can all agree that soccer/football is indeed the Beautiful Game. Not just from an individual athleticism standpoint, but also the teamwork: Soccer is a lovely ballet, only with more kicking and tripping and hooliganism.
Which makes the robots of the RoboCup all the more impressive. They look a bit like mini Daleks, but they’re way more chill and way better at soccer. Individually, they sense their world and scoot around and snag the ball and kick it, which is grand. But collectively, they form a team that’s teaching roboticists to build—dare I say it —synergistic machines that cooperate to form something bigger than the sum of their individual teammates. And that’s essential if humanity is going to create a robotic society that doesn’t descend into chaos.
Here’s how the robot works. On top of its head is a camera pointing upward into a small parabolic mirror, which lets the robot see 20 feet in any direction. Supplementing that is a Kinect camera on its chest that points forward. This builds a 3-D image of the ball, as well as any obstacles like opposing robots.
The robot rolls on special wheels that allow it to motor smoothly in any direction, like a human soccer player. When it approaches the ball, it grabs the thing in a kind of port made of wheels. “When the robot is driving in a given direction with a given speed, we know what the velocity of these wheels should be to make sure that the ball rolls over the field as it would do without the robot,” says Eindhoven University of Technology roboticist Wouter Kuijpers, team leader of the Tech United soccer robot crew. So yeah, it can dribble.
And kick. Within the port is a lever that the robot can move up and down, aligning the robo-boot with different heights on the ball’s surface. When the robot kicks at the bottom of the ball, it gets a lob shot. By aligning the boot higher on the ball, it can make a ground shot that’s better for passing.
Behaviorally, programmers set each robot to adopt a certain role, like an attacker or defender. But it can also adapt on the fly if, say, it’s working as a defender and it steals the ball from an opposing robot. Then it autonomously switches into an attacker and, well, goes on the attack.
All the while, the robot is chatting with its teammates over Wi-Fi, influencing their decisions. “An example of this is that the attacking robots without the ball communicate whether they have a clear shot on goal,” says Kuijpers. “If a robot has a clear shot, it is likely receive a pass from the robot with the ball, which might not have a clear shot.” A teammate may also move into an optimal position to receive a pass, while the others make sure to stay clear of its scheming.
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It all actually works surprisingly well, especially considering the robots don’t just have to worry about their teammates. “This is a very challenging case in which robots have to cooperate, one in which the environment—which includes opponents—might intentionally try to block your team,” says Kuijpers.
So Kuijpers and his fellow researchers are learning the best strategy for winning a soccer match, sure. For instance, you want to keep your robots spaced out. (Cue visions of my childhood soccer coach yelling at us to stop bunching up for the love of God.) But beyond that they’re learning how to get robots to communicate and cooperate amid chaos. That demands good code, but soccer also pushes the limits of physical robotics. These things have to constantly sense their environment and process that information and coordinate not just their own bodies, but do so as a team while dodging still more robots.
It may seem silly to you, but what roboticists are learning on a soccer field will help build a world that will one day crawl with machines. For the time being, robots are largely solitary beings frozen in space—manufacturing arms on an assembly line, for instance. But as robots grow more sophisticated and break out of the factory, they’ll have to both work together and avoid getting in each other’s way. That’ll require powerful sensors and constant communication, the kinds of things that a game of soccer demands.
So will the machines ever steal a human soccer player’s job? Nah. Some things of beauty will always be better left to humans.