World RoboCup soccer champions off to Germany to defend title

Australia’s reigning world champions of RoboCup robot soccer are facing their arch-nemesis on home turf in Germany in what is expected to a tough battle to retain their coveted crown in robotics and artificial intelligence.

The team of six autonomous robots and their five engineers from UNSW – whose teams have taken a record five trophies in the premier category, the Standard Platform League – leave this weekend for Leipzig where the annual bout is being held next week.

The team from UNSW’s Computer Science and Engineering are the only Australians battling the 29 robot squads from 18 nations, including six elite teams from Germany. Last year, UNSW defeated Germany’s B-Human robot squad by 3-1 in a tense grand final at the RoboCup World Championship in Hefei, west of Shanghai in China.

It was their second year in a row vanquishing a German team, and now they are heading deep into enemy territory. UNSW’s five trophies puts them one ahead of their arch rivals, Germany’s B-Human, which has won four RoboCup titles.

The robot players are not externally controlled and act completely autonomously – relying entirely on the programming and self-governing algorithms developed over the past year by their human engineers. While the competing teams of humanoid robots battle it out, engineers watch the event live, constantly refereeing to their laptops.

“We can listen what they’re saying to each other, and we can see what they think is going on,” said David McKinnon, 22, a  computer engineering student. “Once the game starts, we're cannot modify their behaviours in any way. But after each game we can see their mistakes, learn from them, and try to improve our play."

Hayden Smith, computer science honours student

Hayden Smith, 23, a computer science honours student, agreed. “Our success is tied to the engineering work we've completed over the past year. There are no pep talks, we just have to make sure we’re prepared – and hold our breath.”

Again this year, Germany’s B-Human – a six-robot team run by a collaboration between the University of Bremen and DFKI (German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence) – will be the ones to beat. They’ve won RoboCup German Open seven times, and the European Open once.

“They’ve always been in the top three and always have a very strong team,” said Brad Hall, Assistant Director of International Projects at UNSW Engineering and a staff member of the team. “We beat then last year 3-1 in the final, and the year before that 5-0 in the semi-finals. By all accounts, they are a lot stronger this year.”

The Australians can only hope the new software they coded in the past year will stand them in good stead – but there’s no way to know until they enter the pitch. What makes it even harder is each winning team must share its computer will all other competitors, meaning that the champion UNSW team cannot rely on its winning software, and has make dramatic improvements each time.

 Brad Hall, Assistant Director of International Projects at UNSW Engineering

In RoboCup’s Standard Platform League, all teams use identical robots (this year, NAO V5 humanoids made by Softbank Robotics), allowing teams to concentrate on software development. The 'pitch' itself is 10.4 metres long and 7.4 metres wide, and teams play for about 20 minutes in total, broken up into two 10 minute halves and a 10 minute half-time break.

Each year, the rules change to make the competition more challenging. For example, the Mylec orange street hockey ball has this year been been replaced by black and white foam ball, to resemble a real soccer ball better.

The objective of RoboCup is to have fully autonomous robot football players play against the winners of the FIFA World Cup by 2050, complying with official FIFA rules, and win a game.



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