Robot football – Goal for artificial intelligence

Robot football – Artificial intelligence scores!

Humanoid robots

The “Darmstadt Dribblers” have won multiple World Championship titles in robot football. Image: Darmstadt Dribblers
The “Darmstadt Dribblers” have won multiple World Championship titles in robot football. Image: Darmstadt Dribblers

When two-legged robots score a goal, dribble with finesse or even occasionally foul their opponents, it may, at first sight, look as if scientists are just having a bit fun to break their routine. But robot football competitions that gather teams from around the globe mean much more than that. Developers of football robots are striving to develop intelligent robots which will play on a par with human football world champions by 2050.

The scientists' motivation is their assumption that robot football is the key to fundamental advances in artificial intelligence and robotics, because biologists have discovered that, in order to develop intelligence, a robot needs a mobile body with sensory organs that can perceive and interact with its environment. The degree of intelligence increases with mobility and the variety of sensory organs.

Thus humans owe their intelligence not least to their ability to apply their enormous number of muscles, range of motion and sensory organs effectively in a dynamic environment. This leads to the hypothesis that only a humanoid machine can develop humanoid intelligence.

The humanoid football robots developed by TU Darmstadt's Simulation, System Optimisation and Robotics group have about two dozen motorised joints. Thanks to their agility, they kick like champions: The “Darmstadt Dribblers” team has won multiple world championship titles in robot football over the past decade.

Robot Bruno masters every trick in football. Image: Katrin Binner
Robot Bruno masters every trick in football. Image: Katrin Binner

Their agility makes the Darmstadt Dribblers capable of true strokes of football genius, like the world’s first back-heel goal scored by a humanoid robot. The machine-men have sensory organs, an artificial eye in the form of a video camera on their heads, as well as joint angle, acceleration and yaw-rate sensors. Tiny mobile PCs on the back serve as the brains of the fully autonomous robots. Admittedly, robots of such agility do stumble more easily than the ones trundling around safely on four wheels, which makes it a lot more difficult to teach them to walk and kick.

Robots save the day

Roboter Hector wird dem Publikum präsentiert. Bild: Jan Hartung
Showtime for TU Darmstadt’s rescue robot, developed by Team Hector. Image: Andreas Arnold

However, on the plus side, they are able to adapt to diverse environments. Future uses for humanoid robots could therefore include rescue operations in dangerous surroundings, household help, or service. Robot football tournaments are more than just an experimental field for robot developers. They are a unique opportunity for students to experience the diverse challenges facing Information Technology and Engineering, and to learn what it takes to work together successfully as a team under time pressure and in an international contest. Moreover, the tournaments are also pioneering one of the first standardised testing environments for autonomous, intelligent robots.

Under competitive conditions, such as the RoboCup World Championships, Darmstadt’s students and Ph.D. candidates rise to the occasion every time. In 2014, TU Darmstadt’s Team Hector fetched the world championship title in Brazil against stiff international competition in the RoboCup Rescue Robot League. The team also won yet another award for the most intelligent rescue robot, which operated flawlessly in a standardised testing environment that simulated a disaster such as the aftermath of an earthquake or a tsunami. With their various sensors – video cameras, infrared sensors, 3D-cameras, laser scanner – robots explore the affected area as autonomously as possible, chart it, and search for hidden victims. The robots are evaluated according to criteria developed by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).