By Rachel Anderson
Teams of engineering students crowded around a square of green carpet last week in a seeding competition for Thursday?s robot soccer tournament.
After spending a semester writing codes and building the robots for their senior project, all the students could do was watch and cheer for the soccer players.
?I think a lot of people underestimate the difficulty in automating that kind of function,? said James Archibald, one of the professors who directs the program. ?You can hand a remote control to a young child and they can drive a remote control car around, but that?s a very difficult thing to get a computer to do.?
A camera positioned over the field feeds an image of the robots and the ball to computers that line the lab. Students have written software for the computer that processes the data, trying to recognize the objects by color and determine what the best course of action is. This information is then sent to the robots by a wireless link ? a process repeated many times in the course of the four-minute match.
To make this complex interaction work, Archibald said teamwork is crucial.
?One of our goals with this senior project format is to put [students] on a team where the project is simply too big for them to tackle,? he said. ?So if you get put on a team and nobody else cares, you?re going to fail. You cannot win this competition, you can?t even make a good showing in it, if you?re not a committed team.?
Brad Perry, a computer engineering major on a team named Combat Alfalfa, spent more than 10 hours a week developing his specialty assignment, the robots? artificial intelligence.
?The artificial intelligence will choose a play ? tell the group what to do,? Perry said. ?You could see, for example, when the ball got to the edge of the field, the robot would start hitting it against the wall. It was trying to rebound the ball.?
Perry?s team is placed third for Thursday?s tournament.
?I think the robots were pretty well coordinated,? he said. ?There are still mistakes, they?re not doing quite what you told them to, but we are happy with our performance.?
As a junior in his major, Perry has taken classes that support his experience, but the challenge is applying that knowledge to programming the robots.
?We don?t really tell you what to do with this stuff ? it?s a process of discovery as much as anything,? Archibald said. ?We have a sequence of labs that we?ve designed over the years that guide them through some of the material, but, by and large, they have to discover this on their own.?
Competitors draw upon the past seven years of robot soccer tournaments. Each team was required to leave a Web site with their designs and codes for the next year?s students to build on.
Brian Martin, an electrical engineering major on a team named Matrix, said the scheduled labs gave the base core of codes to use, and then they looked at the parts of other teams? codes.
?An especially helpful code we found was for the pathfinder that dictates the robots? path around the field,? said Martin, who mostly works on the plays and skill level of the robots for his team.
At the beginning of the program, students did not have this advantage.
?The first year, the robots had to fit in a 1-foot square, and we just played one on one,? Archibald said. ?They were kind of big and cumbersome, and some of them looked ugly ? there were a couple made of basically wood and duct tape.?
Archibald said the competition has come a long way since then. The robots have gotten smaller and more sophisticated and, for the first time this year, there are three players per team.
All six teams are excited for the final tournament, set for Thursday evening in the WSC Garden Court. Archibald suggests spectators stop in from 7 to 8 p.m., toward the end of the series of matches.
?For us, this competition is a way of saying ?Hey, this is just a taste of the tremendous things you can do in engineering,?? Archibald said. ?Creative expression is not something that is just limited to people in the arts or in literature. Every one of these teams will have a lot of creative elements; some of them pan out, some of them don?t.?