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Robots compete for Robocup 2013 soccer title

While World Cup protests continue throughout Brazil, another international soccer event is attracting nothing but awe. More than a thousand soccer-playing robots from 40 countries took to the pitch last week in the Netherlands for RoboCup 2013.

Georgia Tech junior Justin Buchanan, 20, just returned from the week-long event, where his GT RoboJackets competed in the small robot league.

"It can be like watching a kids soccer match," Buchanan told "Watching six little kids kick the ball towards the wrong goal, then run after it." The key to winning, he added, is all in the software design.

Teams from seven U.S. universities competed in five of the six divisions, including the University of Miami's RoboCanes, Massachusetts Institute of Technology's RFC Cambridge and the UPennalizers from the University of Pennsylvania.

The tournament matches competitors based on size and virtual skills -- there are six leagues, including 2D simulation, 3D simulation, small robots and humanoid robots. The humanoid robots come in three sizes. Their limbs are still a bit creaky, and their Gumby-like faces maintain a smile throughout the match. Behind the mask, Wi-Fi modules and wide-angle cameras facilitate communication.

The small robots are about the size of a coffee can on wheels, with a cluster of five colorful circle on top. They play on a 6.05 x 4.05 meter green carpet, kicking around an orange golf ball. According to the league's website, a standardized vision system (SSL-Vision) tracks all objects on the field, processing data provided by two cameras the sit 4 meters above the pitch. The league's community created SSL-Vision as an open source project.

Teams and players are identified by the color pattern on the top of their shells. The camera sees the colors to send information back to the computer system that manages communication.

A human referee manages on-field action, sending signals to the central computer. At half-time, teams can check their robots' batteries and make sure everything is in working order. Since joining the league when it started in 1997, Carnegie Mellon University's CMDragons have twice captured the title.

The middle-size league features two teams of five robots playing on an 18 x 12 meter turf field. The larger pitch tends to draw a larger crowd, with fan packing the bleachers to cheer on their teams.

Developers plan to eventually merge the various robot technologies to create a super-robot team capable of defeating the likes of Ronaldino and Lionel Messi. But to anyone watching this year's RoboCup, that goal is clearly a long way off.

The fluid artistry fans can expect from the Brazilian national men's team; the smooth teamwork of the Italian soccer supernovas, have yet to be programmed into the humanoid robots' mechanic limbs.

Instead, the robots slowly approach the ball, slowly lifting their heads to assess the position of fellow players and the goal before launching a rather weak shot. In the small robot league, the ball travels a bit faster, thanks to a "dribbler" bar and a "kicker" lever. As for keeping their eye on the ball, that's an extra challenge for the Japanese "teen" humanoids: they don't have heads, just cameras mounted on pongs.

The robotocists who compete in events such as RoboCup know that the technology they are designing will do more than help win a man versus machine soccer match.

Robots are expected to one day aid in tasks as trivial as household chores to much more important efforts, such as fighting fires and disaster rescues.

"The programming challenges and the hardware challenges that we face are the same types of challenges," he said. "We're solving them in the context of soccer, but the engineering challenges can be applied to all sorts of robots."

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