Will robot soccer players one day beat FIFA's best?

Robots are becoming increasingly autonomous and will eventually be able to use their own judgement to make decisions

World FIFA soccer players could face a drubbing by robots in the future if RoboCup has its way.

The RoboCup robot competition, which involves robots pitted against each other on a soccer field, aims to have robots play against the FIFA world champions — and beat them — by 2050.

The competition pits teams of teams of four robots against each other, with each robot capable of walking, running and kicking a ball.

Sean Harris, a PhD student who has competed in two RoboCup competitions and was part of the UNSW team which took out third place, said robot technology has come far since 2008 when the bipedal soccer-playing robots could barely walk. Instead of a competition to see how many goals the robots could score, it was previously a competition about whose robot could last the longest without falling over or running out of power.

“The hardware is improving each year, which makes things easier. This year some of the gears [in the robots] changed to metal gears, so they’re a bit more robust and a bit more durable,” Harris told Computerworld Australia.

Additional cameras were also placed in the robots which can be operated simultaneously - previously, cameras could only be operated one at a time. This gives the robots a wider depth of field, with the cameras used to help the robots sense their environment by recognising colours and the edges of the soccer field.

The robots, which are completely autonomous during the game, also use localisation to detect where they are on the field and communicate and share information with each other. While most teams in the competition use Wi-Fi to send information between the robots, the robots also house microphones and speakers to communicate via audio. The robots are then able to make group decisions about how to play the game.

“For our team we had this blackboard structure which contains all the information that you work out, from your vision and things like that. For example, where the ball is, where your opponents are,” Harris said.

“That then all gets bundled up and distributed amongst the robots over wireless and then each one will get a [network] packet from each of their team mates and read the packet.”

Just like when the game is conventionally played by biological humanoids, players in RoboCup frequently fall over. While they are able to get back up on their own accord, if they fail to get up after multiple attempts, they are 'sin binned' for 30 seconds.

Ultimately, the knowledge garnered from robot competitions like RoboCup and the algorithms that are developed will be used in commercial applications. For example, for robots used in rescue missions or domestic robots in households. Developing technology will also mean robots will be able to function more autonomously and eventually learn to analyse situations and use their own judgement to make decisions.

“Robots will become quite good at doing things far better than humans because they can learn for themselves what the best way is [to do things] and then refine that and be able to repeat it very accurately,” Harris said.

This will enable robots to be more widely used in industry. Robots are also being used more in rescue missions. For example, robots can enter buildings to map what walls are broken and where victims are located and were used after the 2011 Japanese earthquake.

“It’s easier for a robot to go in, build a map of the inside [of the building] and [find] where all the victims are so that once rescuers are there, they can go in, get victims and get out quickly before anything else happens,” Harris said.

“That’s just one application. There’s lots of different ways they could save lives.”

Follow Stephanie McDonald on Twitter: @stephmcdonald0

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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