Robots soccer stars of future

July 14, 2000

Germany's national football team proved itself all too human when it crashed out of Euro 2000 early, but the country's soccer-playing robots might be more reliable.

German universities will field up to 16 teams in the fourth Robot World Cup (RoboCup) tournament to be held in Melbourne, Australia, from August 26 to September 3. Only Japanese and Iranian computer science departments will be more strongly represented.

German teams have built a strong reputation in this international education and research initiative, which aims to foster artificial intelligence and robotics research in universities through robotic football challenges.

Bernhard Nebel, of the Institute for Informatics at Freiburg University and leader of CS Freiburg, said: "I would say we are the favourites in Melbourne this year alongside the Iranian and Italian teams."

CS Freiburg won the 1998 RoboCup world championship in the medium-sized league in Paris and were runners-up in the championship held in Stockholm last year. The Robot World Cup Initiative (RoboCup), originally inspired by Japanese experts, chose soccer as a common research platform on which a wide range of technologies, such as real-time reasoning, robotics and sensor function, can be integrated and evaluated.

The project has set the ambitious target of developing a team of fully autonomous humanoid robots that can beat the reigning human world champion team in a game of soccer by the year 2050. But the first humanoid league will not be launched until 2002.

The tournaments are divided into four leagues. In the small robot league, teams of five robots up to 15cm in diameter compete on a pitch the size of a table tennis table. Favourites include the FU Fighters of the Free University of Berlin, runners-up last year, and The Big Red, of Cornell University, last year's winners. The medium-sized league has teams of four on a larger pitch, while the Sony legged robot league plays with hardware supplied by the Japanese electronics giant.

In the simulation league, virtual robots play on a computer screen. The organiser provides the server and teams write their own software codes. The favourites are CM United of Carnegie Mellon University in the United States, who were world champions last year for the second year running. But they will face tough competition from Magna Freiburg, last year's runners-up, and from the Essex Wizards, of Essex University, probably the only British competitors in this year's competition, who came third in Stockholm and third in last month's first European RoboCup in Amsterdam.

Huosheng Hu, of Essex's computer science department, said: "We are hoping to do better in Melbourne. But it is very difficult to predict a winner because you never know what progress other departments are making before a competition." Dr Hu said: "The RoboCup is a great platform for motivating research." He stressed that the tournaments had a serious role in aiding the development of robots for use in industry, in humanitarian roles, such as mine detection, and in military functions, such as robot-driven tanks.

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