On the day the Euro 2012 championships kicked off, the second best soccer team in Europe were busy showing off their skills in NUI Maynooth. Robot soccer, that is.
RoboEireann is a team developed by students and staff from the Department of Electronic Engineering and Department of Computer Science at NUI Maynooth.
The team competes in the Standard Platform League of the RoboCup competition. In that category all teams use identical humanoid robots. The challenge lies in developing software that enables the robots to play a game of soccer without human intervention or remote control.
A free public demonstration of the team was held at NUIM on Friday 8 June. At the event, lecturer in Electronic Engineering Dr Sean McLoone told the Leinster Leader about the history of the programme.
“It started when a visiting professor came over from Newcastle in Australia. He had been participating in a previous competition, the Sony AIBO League, which was the Sony AIBO dogs playing soccer. In 2008 for the first time they introduced humanoid robots to the league. The professor approached the Computer Science Department and Electronic Engineering Department to see if we’d be interested in forming a team, which we did and we participated for the first time in 2008.”
The joint team of NUIM and the University of Newcastle won the World Championships that year. After that NUIM went out on their own and have been participating ever since. The students and staff who contribute do so on a voluntary basis.
Team RoboEireann has also found success off the pitch. “Each year there’s a competition called the technical challenge where we demonstrate the research we’re doing,” explained Dr McLoone. “Last year we won the technical challenge competition as part of the world championships in Istanbul.”
The game is usually played between two teams of four robots, each with its own job to do on the pitch. However, for the demonstration in the Hamilton Institute of NUIM, two teams of three were pitted against each other.
Each team consisted of a goalkeeper, a striker and a support player. If a robot is not working properly, its role on the pitch can be given to another robot. Robots can be penalised for offences such as pushing or leaving the playing area. When they commit an offence, they are sent to the sin-bin on the sideline.
Like in real knockout soccer, when the scores are level at the end of the game, penalties decide the outcome.
Speaking before the demonstration, team coach and lecturer in Electronic Engineering Dr Rudi Villing said: “There is a huge amount of work and expertise designed into each move the robots make. Like standard soccer, we have referees, fouls, sendings off and penalties – so each game can be very eventful.”
But the programme is about much more than soccer. According to Dr McLoone, the robots are taken to primary schools to expose pupils to science and get them to think about what engineers and computer scientists do. He also sees robots as playing a big part in the world’s future.
“As the population gets older the state and society won’t be able to support it because we won’t have enough of a younger population to have everybody in care homes. So for people who want to live at home independently, assistive technology robots can help out like a servant who would help you make the tea or assist you to get out of bed. So that’s where this research is going towards.
“Getting the robots to do the intelligent behaviour required to play soccer advances the research in all these other areas.”
Another side to it is that it “inspires the students to do well because they want the team to do well.”
And the team has done very well, finishing second at the German Open in March (the robot equivalent of Euro 2012). RoboEireann was one of 38 teams competing from 12 countries. To reach the final, the two-foot tall robots defeated teams from Greece, Spain, Portugal and Germany. They lost the final against three-time defending world champions B-Human of Germany.
So just as Gary Lineker famously described the human form of the game: two teams chase a ball and in the end the Germans win.