Robots Rule!
The NUManoids in action

The human race has been familiar with the robot since the dawn of film and television, with stars like C3PO and R2D2 of Star Wars fame or Will Robinson's 'Robot', later called B9, from Lost in Space. All these metal characters contain that unique essence of humanity within their machine in some form or other. The robots Huey, Dewey and Louie from Silent running 'say' nothing, communicating with little noises, but they still manage to convey a persona and feeling.

These little robot personalities have made some of us become quite emotionally attached, to the point of having fan clubs and in such a way we could almost believe they were real. But in reality, robots are becoming increasingly part of reality as their intelligence and prevalence grows while we move closer and closer to a robotic age. Now they even have their own world soccer league!

Leading in this soccer league is Newcastle University Robotics Laboratory which is at the forefront of robot development in Australia. The Laboratory recently proved its soccer prowess when in July it was part of the world champion team to win the new Standard Platform League at the 2008 RoboCup competition held in China.

The University teamed up with the National University of Ireland to form what they called the NUManoid team and programmed a two-legged robot, called the Aldebaran Nao robot, to play in the competition.

PhD student and NUManoids team leader, Naomi Henderson, who joined the Laboratory in 2005, explained that the Standard Platform League replaced the Four-Legged League where their previous four-legged robots - the NUbots - had reached international fame for their success with the soccer playing robotic dogs.

"It all began with the Nubots in 2002 when they came third in the League, then third again in 2003 and 2004," she said. "In 2005, they came second and then the following year, won the competition. But in 2007 they were second again so we were really excited about winning with the two-legged robot this year.

"We moved to the new robot because Sony stopped the production of the four-legged soccer playing robotic dogs, so the teams had to start working with the new two-legged Aldebaran Nao," said Naomi. "However whilst the two legged Nao robot has replaced the four legged Sony Aibo the four legged version does still exist.

Up close and personal

The soccer game is played in 10 minute halves. Each team has two robots on the field including the goalkeeper and a substitute is available on the sideline in case of injury. In the previous years it was three robots but this year the rules were changed to two.

"This is an important competition because there are a limited numbers of teams so you have to apply to get accepted because of the limited hardware available," she said.

"In the end there were only 16 experienced teams from around the world given access to the new robot hardware with Newcastle being one of only two Australian teams.

"The whole idea of the Standard Platform Leagues is that standard hardware is used and can't be modified, so it's a competition about software which has to be programmed to recognise and respond to visual stimulus.

Naomi explained that in soccer many of the skills that humans take for granted are used in the game and encompass the software challenge.

"When playing soccer there's a great deal of running towards the ball, recognising where it is and using quick strategic thinking to make decisions as to what to do with the ball and where to place it, not just in terms of the goal but the other players too," said Naomi.

"Our job is to recreate these skills on a fully autonomous robot which must interpret images from a moving camera and make all its decisions on its own, based on its programming and without any external input.

The ultimate aim of the NUManoids is to develop and program robots that can support humans with routine as well as dangerous or expert tasks.

"NUManoids could be very helpful to people who are disabled, for example, or work in dangerous industries, going into areas where humans can't during operation," said Naomi.

"In addition the technology could possibly have medical uses such as programming robotic limbs to be linked into the human nervous system. It's not quite Terminator material yet, but will most likely be part of the future for generations to come," she concluded.

A story provided by ANSTO's Velocity Magazine - science in motion and Newcastle University. This article is under copyright; permission must be sought from ANSTO to reproduce it.