Robocup 2016: The agony and the ecstasy

Teaching a robot to play soccer is a lot harder — and lot more fun — than Hayden Smith bargained for.

Programming a humanoid robot to play soccer is, I imagine, a little bit similar to raising a child.

Some days things go so well that you can’t help but pick up your robot and hug it while cheering with an embarrassing glee. Sometimes nothing works, and it seems like the robot just won't listen (read: work as intended). Those days are incredibly frustrating but when it's over, for the better moments and the worse, it all feels worth it.

Of course, programming robots is nothing like parenting, but there is certainly something special about using your engineering abilities to program a robot to think, to make decisions for itself, and to play soccer autonomously.

UNSW competes in a "Standard Platform League" (for fairness everyone has the same hardware, but writes their own software) every year as part of a larger competition known as Robocup. In 2016, a team consisting of myself, three other students, and one staff member, travelled to Leipzig in Eastern Germany to defend our back-to-back World Championship titles in 2014 and 2015.

Winning in 2016 was going to be hard from the start. New regulations changed our easy-to-see fluoro orange soccer ball to a matte, black-and-white patched soccer ball. Seeing the ball became the battleground for 2016.

Although funded at similar levels to other universities, our team was three to six times smaller than our German and American major rivals. We really needed more people!

With our small team and working on top of our own very old software, we just weren't up to standard when it came to keeping track of the ball. We quickly concluded that a robot's ability to play soccer is affected by its ability to the see the ball (sarcasm). Our robots also share the ball's location between them to determine where they are on the field. The knock-on effect essentially meant that we played a series of round robin matches in which the robots didn't know where they were, and could rarely see the ball.

"Training" for the robots.

Although we had a couple of shots at the goal, and a few breath-stopping moments of hope, we didn't make it into the play-off rounds. It was a disappointing result, but the important thing is that we put in a good effort.

More broadly, after racing solar cars for over two years with sUNSWift, I won't lie; I was convinced it would be hard to get excited about small robots trotting around a field at a sometimes irritatingly slow speed. But in the months leading up to competition, that assumption was proved wrong. Our programming became more than theory — it became a reality of making compromises, cutting corners, and learning how to develop a real-world sense of priorities when, literally, a handful of seconds matter.

There was something so fundamentally and naturally exciting about the soccer games. No matter who we played, or how well matched the teams were, we were deeply invested in our robots’ success. Every time they chased a ball, we’d shoot to our feet to (loudly) cheer them on. Every time the robots kicked for goal and ever so slightly missed, our heads would fall into our hands as we mourned the lost opportunity.

It was a place where the lines between engineering and sport were blurred — and all that was left was a lot of fun, and a lot of learning along the way.

- Hayden Smith, 4th year Computer Science (Hons)

Robocup is one of the many innovative Student-led Projects that UNSW students can participate in during their studies. Click here to find out more and make your mark today.

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  • The robots in Japan.
  • UNSW's RobCup team being interviewed ahead of the game.
  • Score!