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Physics algorithm kick-starts RoboCup soccer bots

Carnegie Mellon's bots have improved programming that might let them beat rivals at RoboCup 2010. They're able to predict where the ball will go instead of just reacting.


Some American robots heading to Singapore to battle it out at the RoboCup 2010 soccer tournament may be as surprising as the U.S. national team in the World Cup. They have a new weapon in their bag of tricks--a physics-based algorithm that lets them calculate where the ball will go so they can bend it like Beckham, or at least like R2-D2.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are confident their robots will outperform rivals in the tournament's Small-Size League because the bots' improved coding takes ball dynamics into account. By predicting how the ball will behave instead of just reacting to it or relying on programmed plays, the bots seem to have an advantage. They might even score through bank shots.

CMU researcher Stefan Zickler, who wrote his thesis on the algorithm while working toward a Ph.D. in computer science, said in a release that robots had never before been able to know when they will lose control of a ball while performing moves like turning and dribbling. The vid below shows a robot programmed with the algorithm outscoring against one without it.

Zickler works on the CMDragons, a team of five cylindrical wheeled robots under 6 inches tall. The group tested an earlier version of algorithm at RoboCup 2009, outplaying rivals until a glitch doused their hopes in the quarterfinals. This time, Dragons leader Manuela Veloso, a computer science professor at CMU, is confident of success, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "I don't see any reason why we won't win."

Veloso said the physics-based algorithm could also be used to help robots fight forest fires by having them consider factors like wind and the type of trees. In the vid below, Zickler's computer simulations show uses of the predictive algorithm to calculate ball trajectories in mini golf, robot soccer, and billiards, as well as the way tumbling dice will fall.

Participants in RoboCup, which gets underway next week, share technical innovations, and the game has evolved considerably since its debut in Japan in 1997. If Zickler's algorithm proves popular, it will be one more step toward RoboCup's objective of developing autonomous robot soccer players that can defeat, under FIFA rules, the best human players by 2050.