When Virginia Tech’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa) won the RoboCup 2011 soccer competition – including the grand prix Louis Vuitton Humanoid Cup – in July 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey, it was more than a job well done. Its victory was a first for the United States in the world of humanoid robotics dominated by Japan and Korea, not to mention soccer-obsessed nations such as England and Germany.
Dennis Hong, associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of RoMeLa, said he is still wowed by the victory a month later. “It is difficult to really comprehend the significance,” he said. “Besides taking first place in both the adult- and kid-size divisions and becoming the world champions, the Louis Vitton Best Humanoid Award is considered the most prestigious award for humanoid robotics. This has a significant symbolic meaning, showing the shift in the leaders in humanoid robotics in the world.”
Japan had the coveted trophy – worth some $50,000 – for seven consecutive years, with Germany taking it for two years. It soon will be on display at Virginia Tech’s Randolph Hall for the next year.
At the forefront of the wins were CHARLI 2, an adult-sized autonomous humanoid robot, and six DARwIn-OPs, 18-inch autonomous humanoid robots, all developed by Virginia Tech graduate and undergraduate students focusing in mechanical engineering or electrical engineering. Team DARwIn was assisted with software developed by students and faculty from University of Pennsylvania. Team CHARLI was all Virginia Tech.
When CHARLI kicked a winning penalty goal, Hong said the indoor arena erupted in chants of “USA! USA!” That never happened before either, he said.
“The matches are very intense,” said Michael Hopkins, Team CHARLI’s chief software developer and a doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering from Midlothian, Va. “You don’t really know what to expect from your opponents or even from your own robots. Some of the stronger teams tend to hide some of their skills early on so that they have a few tricks up their sleeves near the end.”
Watching video of the RoMeLa students switch out batteries and type last-minute tweaks to the software code in the heat of a match is akin to watching trauma surgical teams move from patient to patient. Doctoral student in mechanical engineering Jeakweon Han, chief mechanical architect of CHARLI 2 and its predecessor, CHARLI-L, tied the win to teamwork. “Every member had a crucial task,” Han, of Seoul, Korea, said. “We all thought same thing, ‘If I fail something, it will screw up what we have done so far.’ It made me focus on my task.”
RoboCup is annual tournament that brings together robotics researchers from around the world, each team pitting robots against robots in soccer – football to most of the world – matches. Other groups from the United States competed among the overall 500 teams. The robots use autonomous Artificial Intelligence to hunt the ball and strategize a goal kick, with rules mirroring human soccer. The tourney’s long-term goal: Build human-sized robots that can play professional human footballers by 2050. The end goal is much more: Build humanoid robots that can perform rescue operations at dangerous sites such as a downed nuclear plant, or more mundane tasks such as lifting immobile elderly patients for health care.
U.S. federal agencies already pouring money into humanoid robotics research and development are taking a deeper look. RoMeLa has been work on a project called SAFFiR for the U.S. Navy. Its goal: Fight onboard ship fires in areas deemed too dangerous for people with humanoid robots. Funding for SAFIR is now at $3 million. If later demos are successful, development funding could top $100 million.
At the recent international Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems conference in Washington, D.C., more high-ranking Navy officers took notice of CHARLI and the DARwIns. “A number of one-star and two-star admirals stopped by to see our robotics technology and were very impressed,” Hong said of the Washington, D.C., event that also featured RoMeLa’s Blind Driver Challenge car on display.
At the RoboCup finale, RoMeLa bested a team from Japan one day after the USA women’s soccer team fell to Japan at the FIFA Women’s World Cup. U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughead gave Hong and his students a huge thumbs-up for their win according to transcripts: “The Navy sponsored robo-soccer team defeated Japan yesterday. So I think we're even in that regard.”
See video featuring CHARLI and the RoMeLa team.
The Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory team made headlines worldwide after its July 10, 2011, RoboCup victory. Among them:
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