A Look Behind the Scenes with Penn's Champion Robotic Soccer Team

In July, the United States scored a major international soccer victory. The nation may not have been able to bring home the Women's World Cup, but Team DARwIn took first place in the Humanoid Kid Size competition at the 2011 RoboCup tournament held in Istanbul, Turkey.

The DARwIn robots, whose name stands for "Dynamic Anthropomorphic Robot with Intelligence," were developed through collaboration between the University of Pennsylvania and Virginia Tech.

Undergraduate and graduate student members of the Penn Engineering team who traveled to the competition included Stephen McGill, Seung-Joon Yi, Yida Zhang, along with Jordan Brindza, Ashleigh Thomas, Spencer Lee, and Nicholas McGill. They are all students in the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory.

For the competition, Penn developed the software for the soccer playing machines: the programming framework that provided each robot with artificial intelligence, or AI. Virginia Tech developed the hardware.

The AI provides basic instructions for the robot, such as the order and angle in which each leg motor needs to move to make the robots walk. The AI's major task is to make gameplay decisions, and to make such decisions the robots must have a sense of their surroundings. A web camera mounted between the robots' glowing "eyes" collects that data.

The relevant objects on the soccer field are color-coded to make it easier for the robots to distinguish where they are in relationship to them. During competition, one goal is blue and the other yellow, and there are corresponding pylons at the middle of each sideline, to ensure the robots don't get lost when they can't see either goal. As for the most crucial object on the field — the ball — the robots check that it is both round and on the ground before navigating towards it. Once a robot sees both the ball and the correct goal, it executes its kicking strategy.

Team DARwIn decided their overarching strategy would be to focus on speed at the expense of strength and accuracy.  "Our goal was to get to the ball the fastest, which allows us to block other teams' kicks and move the ball upfield," Yi says. "The strategy for one of our rivals, the German team, was to make strong, accurate kicks, but it took them a long time to get into the kicking position. Our faster, shorter kicks were more effective."

Team DARwIn beat several teams in the Kid Size Class, including the team from Japan, for the championship. RoboCup, and competitions like it, drive the advancement of sophisticated locomotion and intelligence in robotics.

"These competitions are important for robotics because they take the amazing research done in laboratories and push it to be more robust in real world situations," McGill says. "In competitions, there are rarely 'do-overs' and it is important to make sure that robots can adapt to many unforeseen obstacles. The end results are resilient and feature-full humanoid robots that are better able to work alongside humans."

Text by Evan Lerner
Video by Kurtis Sensenig
Photos by Scott Spitzer