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RoboCup 2019 took place earlier this month down in Sydney, Australia. While there are many different events including RoboCup@Home, RoboCup Rescue, and a bunch of different soccer leagues, one of the most compelling events is middle-size league (MSL), where mobile robots each about the size of a fire hydrant play soccer using a regular size FIFA soccer ball. The robots are fully autonomous, making their own decisions in real time about when to dribble, pass, and shoot.
The long-term goal of RoboCup is this:
By the middle of the 21st century, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players shall win a soccer game, complying with the official rules of FIFA, against the winner of the most recent World Cup.
While the robots are certainly not there yet, they're definitely getting closer.
Even if you’re not a particular fan of soccer, it’s impressive to watch the robots coordinate with each other, setting up multiple passes and changing tactics on the fly in response to the movements of the other team. And the ability of these robots to shoot accurately is world-class (like, human world-class), as they’re seemingly able to put the ball in whatever corner of the goal they choose with split-second timing.
The final match was between Tech United from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands (whose robots are called TURTLE), and Team Water from Beijing Information Science & Technology University. Without spoiling it, I can tell you that the game was tied within just the last few seconds, meaning that it had to go to overtime. You can watch the entire match on YouTube, or a 5-minute commentated highlight video here:
It’s become a bit of a tradition to have the winning MSL robots play a team of what looks to be inexperienced adult humans wearing long pants and dress shoes.
The fact that the robots managed to score even once is pretty awesome, and it also looks like the robots are playing very conservatively (more so than the humans) so as not to accidentally injure any of us fragile meatbags with our spindly little legs. I get that RoboCup wants its first team of robots that can beat a human World Cup winning team to be humanoids, but at the moment, the MSL robots are where all the skill is.
To get calibrated on the state of the art for humanoid soccer robots, here’s the adult size final, Team Nimbro from the University of Bonn in Germany versus Team Sweaty from Offenburg University in Germany:
Yup, still a lot of falling over.
There’s lots more RoboCup on YouTube: Some channels to find more matches include the official RoboCup 2019 channel, and Tech United Eindhoven’s channel, which has both live English commentary and some highlight videos.
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A few years ago, we wrote about NABiRoS, a bipedal robot from Dennis Hong’s Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa) at UCLA. Unlike pretty much any other biped we’d ever seen, NABiRoS had a unique kinematic configuration that had it using its two legs to walk sideways, which offered some surprising advantages.
As it turns out, bipeds aren’t the only robots that can potentially benefit from a bit of a kinematic rethink. RoMeLa has redesigned quadrupedal robots too—rather than model them after a quadrupedal animal like a dog or a horse, RoMeLa’s ALPHRED robots use four legs arranged symmetrically around the body of the robot, allowing it to walk, run, hop, and jump, as well as manipulate and carry objects, karate chop through boards, and even roller skate on its butt. This robot can do it all.
Impressive, right? This is ALPHRED 2, and its predecessor, the original ALPHRED, was introduced at IROS 2018. Both ALPHREDs are axisymmetric about the vertical axis, meaning that they don’t have a front or a back and are perfectly happy to walk in any direction you like. Traditional quadrupeds like Spot or Laikago can also move sideways and backwards, but their leg arrangement makes them more efficient at moving in one particular direction, and also results in some curious compromises like a preference for going down stairs backwards. ANYmal is a bit more flexible in that it can reverse its knees, but it’s still got that traditional quadrupedal two-by-two configuration.
ALPHRED 2’s four symmetrical limbs can be used for a whole bunch of stuff. It can do quadrupedal walking and running, and it’s able to reach stable speeds of up to 1.5 m/s. If you want bipedal walking, it can do that NABiRoS-style, although it’s still a bit fragile at the moment. Using two legs for walking leaves two legs free, and those legs can turn into arms. A tripedal compromise configuration, with three legs and one arm, is more stable and allows the robot to do things like push buttons, open doors, and destroy property. And thanks to passive wheels under its body, ALPHRED 2 can use its limbs to quickly and efficiently skate around:
The impressive performance of the robot comes courtesy of a custom actuator that RoMeLa designed specifically for dynamic legged locomotion. They call it BEAR, or Back-Drivable Electromechanical Actuator for Robots. These are optionally liquid-cooled motors capable of proprioceptive sensing, consisting of a DC motor, a single stage 10:1 planetary gearbox, and channels through the back of the housing that coolant can be pumped through. The actuators have a peak torque of 32 Nm, and a continuous torque of about 8 Nm with passive air cooling. With liquid cooling, the continuous torque jumps to about 21 Nm. And in the videos above, ALPHRED 2 isn’t even running the liquid cooling system, suggesting that it’s capable of much higher sustained performance.
Using two legs for walking leaves two legs free, and those legs can turn into arms.
RoMeLa has produced a bunch of very creative robots, and we appreciate that they also seem to produce a bunch of very creative demos showing why their unusual approaches are in fact (at least in some specific cases) somewhat practical. With the recent interest in highly dynamic robots that can be reliably useful in environments infested with humans, we can’t wait to see what kinds of exciting tricks the next (presumably liquid-cooled) version will be able to do.
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