Gooooooooooooal! The RoboCup held its annual four-day competition in Nagoya, Japan, last week, hosting robots from all around the world competing for techno-supremacy. RoboCupSoccer, one of the five competitions held at the event, saw autonomous machines competing to try and kick a ball into the opposing team’s goal. That is, if they don’t fall over in the process.

The kid-size, humanoid robots executed some spectacular dives.

A robot dive

Although, the footage shows the robots have yet to perfect the jaw-dropping, poor sportsmanship of the world’s best players, like Arjen Robben of Germany’s FC Bayern Munich.

A blatant human dive

First place prize went to Rhoban Football Club from the University of Bordeaux and Bordeaux INP, with its unique, spine-oriented robot stealing the top prize in the above video, using a dazzling array of slow-motion kicks to score the vital goals.

The sport has eight leagues that are categorized by the robot’s shape — small and mid size bots that come in various shapes — a standard platform league where the only bot allowed is SoftBank’s NAO communication robot, and the humanoid league. The latter league is split into kid (16-35 inches), teen (31-55 inches), and adult (51-71 inches) sizes.

Rhoban beat out some impressive competitors to claim the top kids prize. Second place went to the Zju Dancers of Zhejiang University, and third place was awarded to CIT Brains from Chiba Institute of Technology.

Going for the goal.
Going for the goal.

The robot submitted for the kid competition, the Sigmaban robot, weighs 9 pounds and stands 22 inches tall, with 20 degrees of freedom to move its 12-inch legs to kick the ball. Each of its two 5-inch feet has four cleats. A wifi connection allows the bots to communicate, with an onboard USB camera providing an overview of the action. A Linux-based PC powered by an AMD system-on-a-chip works out what the robot should do next, while a special localization module uses the camera data to understand where the robot is positioned on the pitch.

This is the sixth time Rhoban has qualified for a tournament. The first was in 2011 in Istanbul, when it was known as SigmaBan Football Club. In 2014, the group made it through to the quarterfinals in João Pessoa, Brazil, before reaching the semifinals in Hefei, China, the following year. In 2016, they scored their first top prize in a Leipzig, Germany, competition.

The team described the challenges in a description paper submitted ahead of the tournament:

The very challenging problem of robots playing autonomous soccer in complex and semi-unconstrained environment has driven the team to propose new mechanical designs – spine-oriented robot have been tested, low-cost foot pressure sensors are experimented – and software methods – new custom servo-motors firmware, learning algorithms applied to odometry, motion generation and navigation problems.

Kickoff
Kickoff

The robot even uses soccer boots similar to the ones used by top players:

The main innovation of the robot is located in its feet. The feet are no longer flat but are put on the ground on top of 4 cleats at each foot corner. Only these cleats are in contact with the ground and ”sink” into the artificial grass. This greatly improve the stability of the robot walking on the ”soft” turf.

On the surface, it seems like a fun way of watching robots try to kick a ball. But the teams producing these machines are developing engineers’ and their understanding of bipedal bots, paving the way for a future where they could serve useful roles and traverse cities alone. Maybe then they’ll be able to join in with a kick about.

Last year, the competition featured robots with only a single effective “leg,” which was a small lever inside the machine that snapped forward when the robot detected the ball was nearby.


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