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Dogged determination leads to RoboCup victory

  • Story Highlights
  • Bowdoin College students out-hustle the "Big Dogs" of robotics
  • Sports savvy plays a big part in creating winning team
  • Soccer a good template for solving many robotic mysteries
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By Marsha Walton
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- How does a small liberal arts college in Maine overwhelm computing legends in the sport of canine soccer?

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Robot dogs were designed for home entertainment, but competitors write software to make them soccer players.

Bowdoin College's RoboCup captain, Henry Work, says it was a combination of programming skills, competitive spirit, and fuel from Dunkin' Donuts.

"It was getting the nuts and bolts, a lot of the geek stuff: The dog has to see well, to move fast, to communicate well. Those skills got us to a decent level, and we knew we had the things to work with to win," said Work.

In just their second year of competition, Bowdoin's "Northern Bites" robotic dogs defeated veterans from computing giants like Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the University of Newcastle in Australia.

The RoboCup competition uses soccer-playing robots to promote research in computing and artificial intelligence. The engaging Sony AIBO dogs have lured undergrad and graduate students from around the world to competitions on four continents; Asia, Europe, Australia, and North America.

Why use soccer to further such complex scientific goals?

"The reason for soccer is that everybody understands it. We don't have to explain that the goal is to get the ball in the goal. Everybody knows instantly," said Tucker Balch, associate professor of computing and director of the Georgia Tech Institute for Personal Robots in Education. Georgia Tech hosted RoboCup 2007.

Yet a simple task for a human, getting the ball in the goal, is a many-layered challenge for a robot.

"Take the simplest behavior," said Work. "Run to the ball and kick it. But first, the dog has to know what a ball is," he said.

The most important piece of equipment for Bowdoin's dozen dogs is a video camera in their snouts. The human team members first teach the dogs what a ball is, by showing them pictures. When it is on the field, the dog decides, is this a ball? If it thinks yes, then it moves toward it and pushes it into the proper goal.

In the RoboCup Four-Legged division, four dogs per team compete on a 3-by-5 meter field. One goal is yellow; one is blue. The dogs must be programmed to know which goal to aim for, and which one to avoid.

And while programming skills and "heavy math" are critical, Work says sports knowledge is just as important.

"We were really into the soccer strategy. A lot of us played in high school," said Work, who was also captain of Bowdoin's Ultimate Frisbee Team.

"We tried to find the right person for the right part of the project, and keep them motivated," said Work. That's where the donuts came in at the Brunswick, Maine, campus, he said, during some 80- and 90-hour workweeks before the world competition

"Our team is really competitive. That gave us a lot of fire down the road," said Work.

The aspect of the game that becomes almost eerie for non-scientists is that once the game starts, the humans cannot give commands, but the dogs "talk" to one another.

For instance, if a dog is moving the ball toward the opposition goal, it will communicate through a wireless card to its teammates, "I've got the ball, you stay back."

"Bowdoin hasn't won a national championship in any sport," said "Northern Bites" team adviser Professor Eric Chown. So the international acclaim after the global victory in Atlanta this month has been incredible, he said.

"My goal is to make science fun and exciting and attract young people," said Chown. "The image of nerds is not necessarily a glamorous image. But RoboCup.... This is really cool," he said.

And, as the creators of RoboCup, the Robot World Cup Initiative, realized when it premiered in 1997, the challenges faced by a robot playing soccer can translate to many other fields, such as manufacturing or medicine.

"The problems in RoboCup are the same as what roboticists face in any domain. The robot needs to sense the world, figure out a problem, and make a decision. That fits soccer the same way it does the Mars Rovers, or a robot in an advanced car plant," said Chown.

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While the Four-Legged League is as cute and cuddly as the robot competition gets, there are also divisions for more machine-looking standard robots, several sizes of humanoid robots, and search and rescue robots. And this year for the first time, five teams competed in the NanoBot division, a competition for microscopic robots. These tiny robots are being perfected for use in delicate medical procedures such as eye surgery.

About 300 teams, with 1,700 participants representing 37 countries, took part in all divisions of RoboCup 2007. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About RoboticsRobotics and Human Engineering LaboratoryCenter for Robotics

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