Silicon champions

September 19, 2017

They’re a record five-time global champion of robot soccer and a laboratory to accelerate research in robotics and artificial intelligence.

rUNSWift

Imagine a soccer grand final where a team of fully autonomous humanoid robots beats the latest winners of the World Cup, all within the official guidelines of FIFA.  

This is the long-term vision for RoboCup, an international robot soccer championship that highlights the latest developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics research. 

Since first entering RoboCup in 1999, UNSW’s team rUNSWift has been a consistent leader in the competition. The team, made up of a mix of the university’s top engineering students and robotics experts, has taken out five world titles, most recently in 2014 and 2015. Only one other team, Germany’s B-Human (a joint team from the University of Bremen and the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence, or DFKI) have managed to equal them.

“This is the ‘space race’ of robotics,” says Maurice Pagnucco, Deputy Dean (Education) of UNSW’s Faculty of Engineering and Head of the School of Computer Science and Engineering. “What we learn from robots playing soccer can be applied to industry and help us solve difficult, real-world problems.”  

The competition is a standard platform league of fully autonomous Nao humanoid robots, which compete against each other in teams of five. With no physical advantage, what differentiates the teams from each other is the software and AI the engineers create in the months leading up to the competition. Once the game kicks off, the robots are on their own. 

 “The design process is challenging, as we have to create software that’s robust enough to handle the different situations a soccer player may face,” says software engineer Sean Harris, rUNSWift’s successful leader in 2014 and 2015. “The robot must react quickly and effectively in a variety of unknown situations.”  

It’s this ability to respond quickly that has set rUNSWift apart from other teams competing for the world title. Over hours of simulations and machine learning tests, the UNSW squad has developed a walking code that enables the robots to walk faster than most of their competitors.  

“We start by designing the larger components, and then work our way down to the details of how each component will operate,” says Harris, who now creates software for Cruise GM’s self-driving cars. “We test several different approaches on a weekly basis and fine-tune the best for each task.”

RoboCup winners cannot rest on their laurels. Each year, the software developed by the winning team is shared with all other teams, forcing the technology to accelerate to stay ahead.

RoboCup attracts interested scouts from leading technology brands, such as Google, Microsoft and Dell. It will be held in Sydney in 2019 and is expected to attract up to 600 teams and 20,000 spectators.

– Gemma Conroy

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