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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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We’re very familiar with a wide variety of transforming robots—whether for submarines or drones, transformation is a way of making a single robot adaptable to different environments or tasks. Usually, these robots are restricted to a discrete number of configurations—perhaps two or three different forms—because of the constraints imposed by the rigid structures that robots are typically made of.
Soft robotics has the potential to change all this, with robots that don’t have fixed forms but instead can transform themselves into whatever shape will enable them to do what they need to do. At ICRA in Montreal earlier this year, researchers from Yale University demonstrated a creative approach toward a transforming robot powered by string and air, with a body made primarily out of clay.
Photo: Evan Ackerman
The robot is actuated by two different kinds of “skin,” one layered on top of another. There’s a locomotion skin, made of a pattern of pneumatic bladders that can roll the robot forward or backward when the bladders are inflated sequentially. On top of that is the morphing skin, which is cable-driven, and can sculpt the underlying material into a variety of shapes, including spheres, cylinders, and dumbbells. The robot itself consists of both of those skins wrapped around a chunk of clay, with the actuators driven by offboard power and control. Here it is in action:
The Yale researchers have been experimenting with morphing robots that use foams and tensegrity structures for their bodies, but that stuff provides a “restoring force,” springing back into its original shape once the actuation stops. Clay is different because it holds whatever shape it’s formed into, making the robot more energy efficient. And if the dumbbell shape stops being useful, the morphing layer can just squeeze it back into a cylinder or a sphere.
While this robot, and the sample transformation shown in the video, are relatively simplistic, the researchers suggest some ways in which a more complex version could be used in the future:
Photo: IEEE Xplore
This robot’s morphing skin sculpts its clay body into different shapes.
Applications where morphing and locomotion might serve as complementary functions are abundant. For the example skins presented in this work, a search-and-rescue operation could use the clay as a medium to hold a payload such as sensors or transmitters. More broadly, applications include resource-limited conditions where supply chains for materiel are sparse. For example, the morphing sequence shown in Fig. 4 [above] could be used to transform from a rolling sphere to a pseudo-jointed robotic arm. With such a morphing system, it would be possible to robotically morph matter into different forms to perform different functions.
Read this article for free on IEEE Xplore until 5 September 2019
Morphing Robots Using Robotic Skins That Sculpt Clay, by Dylan S. Shah, Michelle C. Yuen, Liana G. Tilton, Ellen J. Yang, and Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio from Yale University, was presented at ICRA 2019 in Montreal.
[ Yale Faboratory ]
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The first competitive event in the DARPA Subterranean Challenge concluded last week—hopefully you were able to follow along on the livestream, on Twitter, or with some of the articles that we’ve posted about the event. We’ll have plenty more to say about how things went for the SubT teams, but while they take a bit of a (well earned) rest, we can take a look at the winning teams as well as who won DARPA’s special superlative awards for the competition.
First Place: Team Explorer (25/40 artifacts found)
With their rugged, reliable robots featuring giant wheels and the ability to drop communications nodes, Team Explorer was in the lead from day 1, scoring in double digits on every single run.
Second Place: Team CoSTAR (11/40 artifacts found)
Team CoSTAR had one of the more diverse lineups of robots, and they switched up which robots they decided to send into the mine as they learned more about the course.
Third Place: Team CTU-CRAS (10/40 artifacts found)
While many teams came to SubT with DARPA funding, Team CTU-CRAS was self-funded, making them eligible for a special $200,000 Tunnel Circuit prize.
DARPA also awarded a bunch of “superlative awards” after SubT:
Most Accurate Artifact: Team Explorer
To score a point, teams had to submit the location of an artifact that was correct to within 5 meters of the artifact itself. However, DARPA was tracking the artifact locations with much higher precision—for example, the “zero” point on the backpack artifact was the center of the label on the front, which DARPA tracked to the millimeter. Team Explorer managed to return the location of a backpack with an error of just 0.18 meter, which is kind of amazing.
Down to the Wire: Team CSIRO Data61
With just an hour to find as many artifacts as possible, teams had to find the right balance between sending robots off to explore and bringing them back into communication range to download artifact locations. Team CSIRO Data61 cut their last point pretty close, sliding their final point in with a mere 22 seconds to spare.
Most Distinctive Robots: Team Robotika
Team Robotika had some of the quirkiest and most recognizable robots, which DARPA recognized with the “Most Distinctive” award. Robotika told us that part of the reason for that distinctiveness was practical—having a robot that was effectively in two parts meant that they could disassemble it so that it would fit in the baggage compartment of an airplane, very important for a team based in the Czech Republic.
Most Robots Per Person: Team Coordinated Robotics
Kevin Knoedler, who won NASA’s Space Robotics Challenge entirely by himself, brought his own personal swarm of drones to SubT. With a ratio of seven robots to one human, Kevin was almost certainly the hardest working single human at the challenge.
Fan Favorite: Team NCTU
Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum
The Fan Favorite award went to the team that was most popular on Twitter (with the #SubTChallenge hashtag), and it may or may not be the case that I personally tweeted enough about Team NCTU’s blimp to win them this award. It’s also true that whenever we asked anyone on other teams what their favorite robot was (besides their own, of course), the blimp was overwhelmingly popular. So either way, the award is well deserved.
DARPA shared this little behind-the-scenes clip of the blimp in action (sort of), showing what happened to the poor thing when the mine ventilation system was turned on between runs and DARPA staff had to chase it down and rescue it:
The thing to keep in mind about the results of the Tunnel Circuit is that unlike past DARPA robotics challenges (like the DRC), they don’t necessarily indicate how things are going to go for the Urban or Cave circuits because of how different things are going to be. Explorer did a great job with a team of rugged wheeled vehicles, which turned out to be ideal for navigating through mines, but they’re likely going to need to change things up substantially for the rest of the challenges, where the terrain will be much more complex.
DARPA hasn’t provided any details on the location of the Urban Circuit yet; all we know is that it’ll be sometime in February 2020. This gives teams just six months to take all the lessons that they learned from the Tunnel Circuit and update their hardware, software, and strategies. What were those lessons, and what do teams plan to do differently next year? Check back next week, and we’ll tell you.
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