RoboCup Kicks Off in Atlanta

Transformers may be filling the nation's movie theaters, but real-life robots from all over the world are convening in Atlanta to showcase their futuristic ability to help humans -- and to bend it like Beckham.

From Iran to Ireland, Germany to Greece, nearly 300 teams from 37 countries are participating at RoboCup 2007 at the Georgia Institute of Technology, competing in events from search-and-rescue operations to robotic soccer games. The ultimate goal of the RoboCup project is to develop a team of fully autonomous humanoid robots that will beat the human champion World Cup team by 2050.

"This is truly an international event," said Tucker Balch, an associate professor at the Georgia Tech College of Computing and general chairman of RoboCup 2007 Atlanta. "Each country, and even each university, has a different approach to [creating the winning soccer team]. When we all get together and see what works and what doesn't work, we all learn together and progress."

The competition features research robotics, meaning the more than 1,700 participants from universities, high schools, middle schools and elementary schools are showcasing new technology. Balch said soccer is the game of choice because it's one of the most international games and it's easy to recognize the robot's goal.

"Soccer is simple and everybody gets it," Balch said. "But soccer is also complicated because it involves one team against another team. There are lots of subtleties and many opportunities for creating better and better teams."

Real-time perception, artificial intelligence, multirobot collaboration and design principles of autonomous machines are just some of the technologies at work in a single game.

"It's driving many technologies forward all at once, even though on the surface it appears to he a simple game," Balch said.

RoboCup soccer features robots of all shapes and sizes, including teams of four-legged Sony AIBO robotic dogs and teen-size humanoids. Forget the remote control -- these robots function independently, using multirobot cooperation to jointly execute their game plan.

"That's a technology we hope to see in search and rescue and in the military," Balch said.

Such real-world applications have already been a product of the 10-year-old competition. For example, the algorithm responsible for the lightning pace of the computer vision necessary to track the soccer ball down the field -- 30-to-60 times per second -- has been applied to robotic military vehicles to quickly identify the terrain.

While the RoboCup soccer teams feature all the intensity -- and entertainment -- of international sports, the competition also shows the practical way robots will be used in the future. For example, the RoboCup Rescue competition puts robots in a specially constructed house-size disaster site, where they find and map the location of mannequin "victims." The search-and-rescue competition also has a virtual component, which simulates a disaster area the size of a city block. In this event, the robots work as teams to locate victims in a virtual environment filled with complex hazards and obstacles.

Participants in the RoboCup@Home event have developed technologies for much more personal use, such as assisting elderly and disabled people with everyday tasks at home. These robots follow a human through a random, home scenario obstacle -- trying to avoid furniture or other humans, for example -- to show its capability to guide people.

Competing in the 2-Millimeter Dash

Perhaps the robots with the most futuristic applications are also the smallest. The competition's newest division -- the Nanogram Demonstration -- features microscopic robots no bigger than .03 millimeters. Competing in such events as the 2 millimeter dash, these robots showcase technology that may have long-term medical functions.

For example, Balch said, someday researchers hope to create teeny robots for doctors to inject into the bloodstream, machines that would eat cholesterol or band together in the hundreds to find a clot, destroy it, and find their way back to a place where the body would naturally release them.

Amid the stiff competition, these robot fanatics are also finding the time and technology for fun. The RoboCup Junior leagues, composed of elementary and high school students, compete in a dance event, which challenges teams to create robots that dance to music.

"It's really amazing what these kids come up with," Balch said. "It's not just a cold, sterile robot. They're decorated and they're painted. Humanoid robots just blow me away. They look like just miniature people, and it's so amazing to watch them."