Monday, June 18, 2012

RoboCup 2012 kicks off (literally)

Coleman Knabe stands by as CHARLI 2 (wired only for today) takes a kick.

RoboCup2012 kicked off 18 June 2012 as dozens of competitors from across the globe descended on Mexico’s City’s massive World Trade Center. In its 16th year, RoboCup is best known for its soccer league competition – which the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory of Virginia Tech dominated in 2011, with team assistance from the University of Pennsylvania – but it’s much more, with symposiums, a robot rescue competition, a robot simulation contest, and a Junior leagues event for youth.

Yet, soccer is the dominant event. Its goal: By 2050, create autonomous robots agile and smart enough to play professional, human soccer players by the year 2050. It’s a long goal, and the human-sized robots are still in the beginning stages of development for soccer play, but improvements this year over last already are raising eyebrows and excitement levels. But the end goal is not just a sports competition, another reason to pull out vuvuzelas. Imagine the robot that can play soccer against humans is also capable of search and rescue missions during an earthquake, or a leveled building, or the site of a nuclear plant in distress. 

In short, the true end goal is bettering the world and saving lives. Not scoring goals.

Even before the day began, a member of Virginia Tech’s entourage was stopped in an elevator at a nearby hotel. “You’re with RoMeLa?,” a person asked, excitedly, on her way to the World Trade Center. “Yes,” came the quick response. The T-shirt gave it away, black, with write writing, RoMeLa flagged across the back. 
Coleman Knabe and Jack Newton ready CHARLI-2.
For much of the rest of the day, inside a massive convention center trade room, those RoMeLa t-shirts were seen bussing back and forth between work tables and the ubiquitous tennis-ball green soccer fields, as the champion robots from RoboCup 2011 were unpacked: CHARLI 2, the nearly 5-foot tall humanoid robot player for Team CHARLI, and several DARwIn-OP humanoid robots, 28-inch bots that move quick, and can right themselves after taking a fall, and scurry after the soccer ball nimbly. 

The competition itself, set to begin day after tomorrow, is exciting and quite the adrenaline rush (especially with urgent on-the-spot repairs), but the first day of set-up consists of competitors working near elbow to elbow, building their robots if need be, testing movements, testing software, charging power battery backs, and making sure their metal-and-plastic autonomous competitors are walking tall and right.

A hiccup in web service didn’t slow the teams down as they set to work, often improvising on the spot: No laser guide to ensure a robot is standing exactly straight, no tilt, a string from a lanyard is used, a weight tied to its bottom to ensure tautness. (The day was brightened by the appearance of Jeakweon “J.K.” Han, a member of last year’s winning team, and the chief designer of CHARLI. He’s now in Korea at Robotis, but took time out to treat his former teammates -- and a blogger/photographer -- to lunch.)

Several undergraduate and graduate engineering students from Virginia Tech who are part of this year’s team are returning RoboCup veterans and champions from 2011, Mike Hopkins, Derek Lahr, Bryce Lee, Viktor Orekhov, Taylor Pesek. Joining them are RoboCup newcomers Coleman Knanbe and Jack Newton. Virginia Tech’s team is led, once again by Dennis Hong, founder and director of RoMeLa, and a professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech. 

In the Humanoid League under RoMeLa, CHARLI-2 is competing, an improved ’bot over his older brother who competed in 2012, and the DARwIn-OP humanoid robots also have new tricks for the Small-Size Robot League. It is the latter group which University of Pennsylvania team members are co-leading. (We’ll have more on the robots in the coming days as the competition heats up.)

Aditya Asreekumar readies a DARwIn bot.
As with 2011, the RoMeLa team is working with engineering undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania, including returning RoboCup competitors Seung-Joon Yi and Stephen McGill, joined by Aditya Asreekumar, Ashleigh Thomas, Jordan Brendza, Larry Abraham, Mike McGill, Spencer Lee, Will McDermid, William McGill, and Yizheng “Dickens” He. (Yes, the McGills, Mike, Stephen, and Will are brothers.) The UPenn team is once again headed by Dan Lee, associate professor of electrical and systems engineering.

Several of the UPenn team members are competing in the Standard Platform League, which has studetns using the same robot body to compete, but building their own software for the competition. Also new this year: The combined University of Pennsylvania-Virginia Tech team has entered the Mid-Size Robot League, also known as the Teen-Sized competition, with two new robots. (Again, we’ll more on these robots as the week progresses.)

As of this posting, the UPenn and RoMeLa team members remained hard at work inside the World Trade Center, prepping for tomorrow, and outside, rain, thunder, and a bit of a cold spell fell across Mexico City, making it feel more like New York’s early spring. Stay tuned for more posts, videos and photographs.
The main hall as registration was underway.

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