Playing with Robots on a World Stage

Posted: August 3, 2009 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: February 5, 2010 at 10:31 am

By Jennifer Edgerly

Team members and their adviser Sean Luke. Photo courtesy of Robo Patriots

From left, Robo Patriots Team members Brian Hrolenok, Chris Vo and Keith Sullivan with their advisor, computer science professor Sean Luke, at the Robocup Championships in Austria. Photo courtesy of Robo Patriots

For Mason computer science PhD students Brian Hrolenok, Keith Sullivan and Chris Vo, playing with robots is all in a day’s work.

The trio recently returned from a trip to Austria, where their soccer-playing robots competed in the Robocup World Championships — the premiere robotics competition and academic conference.

Although the Mason team was ultimately knocked out in the second round after losing to the Chiba Institute of Technology, a Japanese team that went on to place third, the Robo Patriots are eager for another try next year.

Acceptance into the Robocup competition is a rigorous process and includes a qualification procedure. The spring before the contest, teams must submit a research paper along with a video of their robots demonstrating certain skills.

“We qualified to attend Robocup last year in China, but unfortunately lost our funding and weren’t able to go,” says Sullivan. This year, the Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering provided funding.

“We’ve been working on these robots on and off for the last two years, but leading up to the competition in Austria, it was all-Robocup preparation, all the time.”

Vo checks out a bot before the competition. Photo courtesy of Robo Patriots

Vo checks out a bot before the competition. Photo courtesy of Robo Patriots

Robocup has several different leagues in which teams can compete. The Robo Patriots competed in the small (child) size humanoid soccer league. To compete in the humanoid league, the robots’ arms, hands, legs, feet and head must all be proportional to the body.

While many teams build their robots from scratch, the Mason team used a kit to construct their robots — two players and a goalie.

“Even though we used a kit for our robots, we still had to do all the constructing, which included more than 1,000 screws and spray painting the robots black per the Robocup rules,” says Hrolenok.

“We also had to figure out a way to add a computer, which doesn’t come with the kit. We solved that issue by moving the battery pack inside the robot and attaching a full Linux computer to the chest area.”

Once the robots were constructed, the team got started on the hardest part — programming the computer so the robots could play soccer. Robots are typically built with a sensor that emits sound waves or a laser scanner to provide distance information. However, for their humanoid robots, the team had to add a still camera on the head to serve as eyes.

Taking pictures every few seconds, the computer processed the information and made a decision about what to do next based on where the robot was in the game.

Being fully autonomous, the robots had to be programmed for every single scenario the trio could possibly imagine, including looking for an orange tennis ball, which was to be used as the soccer ball during the competition.

The competition was tough. The trio explains that many teams were much larger than theirs and had students from computer science, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. Moreover, many of the European and Asian teams had members from collaborating universities.

Altogether, the Robo Patriots competed in five matches. In the video below they explain how the robots work.

Although most students would agree that playing with robots sounds like a dream job, the team members are quick to point out that working with these robots has a practical application. They would like to receive research grants to further their work with the robots.

“Working with these robots combines a lot of interesting problems that are common in computer science,” says Vo. “There are issues of localization (knowing where you are), vision (knowing where the ball is and where the other players are), coordination (working together with other players on the field) and motion (being able to walk and kick).”

“There is a lot of research that talks about different ways of approaching all these problems on their own, but when you put it all together and have to have a fully autonomous robot, you find out all the problems that can occur,” adds Hrolenok. “Everything has to work or nothing works.”

To prepare for a rematch, Team Robo Patriots plans to continue to modify the robots and program them for the unexpected scenarios they encountered during this year’s competition.

Write to mediarel at