Penn Robotic Soccer Team Reigns Supreme

The University of Pennsylvania’s robotic soccer team now has another world championship trophy to add to its collection.

Coached by Daniel Lee, director of the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s GRASP Lab, the team consists of Steve McGill, Larry Abraham, Karen He, Seung-Joon Yi, Dickens He, Chris Akatsuka, Junda Zhu, Sagar Poudel and Jianqiao Li.

They accomplished this feat at RoboCup, an annual event that brings the top robotics programs from around the world to face off against one another in a test of a variety of engineering disciplines. This year’s event was held in João Pessoa, Brazil, and featured hundreds of students from 45 countries.  

RoboCup features several different kinds of robotic competitions, but its soccer leagues all have the same familiar rules: get a ball past your opponents and into their goal. All of the robots must see the ball, goals, other players and the field outlines using onboard cameras and must make all decisions autonomously. Their human minders have no control once they are on the pitch. 

Beyond those requirements, however, each league has different specifications for the players. The “KidSize humanoid” league, for example, features 2-foot-tall robots that can run, pass and kick much like a human. Each team designs their own set of players, allowing differing emphases on speed, power, agility and balance.

Having won that league three years running, the Penn team set its sights on a more ambitious challenge: the “AdultSize humanoid” league. These robots must be at least 4 feet tall. Owing to the robots’ size and expense, AdultSize league games are one-on-one. Teams take turns dribbling the ball past stationary objects and shooting against the opponent’s goalkeeper.

Penn’s robot, THORwin, took on teams from Germany, Iran, China and Taiwan and remained undefeated throughout the tournament.    

“Robotic soccer is great way of bringing together a lot of different engineering skills and driving excitement and participation with our robotics students,” Lee said. “Each year, the challenge gets harder, so it’s a real accomplishment to bring home another trophy.”

The Penn team also competed in the “Standard Platform” league, where each team uses the same hardware, a commercially available humanoid robot called NAO, and faces off in five-on-five matches. Because all the players have the same physical capabilities, teams must gain an edge through better software, which governs traits like decision-making and cooperation. Despite a strong showing in group play, the Upennalizers were stopped in the knockout round by a Chilean team.

The experience is not just about boosting robots’ soccer skills; each aspect of the game is broadly applicable to the kinds of tasks humanoid robots may one day be able to do. Simply identifying an object in a crowded environment, such as the ball, and walking to it while keeping balance is a major undertaking, but it would be an everyday requirement for a humanoid robot working in a home, factory or hospital.

THORwin’s pedigree involves working in even more dangerous environments. Penn has competed with the Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot at the DARPA Robotics Challenge, which encourages engineers to develop robots that can interact with a wide range of human environments in dangerous conditions. Faced with challenges such as climbing a ladder, turning a series of valves and cutting through a wall, such robots could one day fight fires onboard ships or carry out other tasks that would be dangerous for humans.

In June, Lee will take THOR and several RoboCup team members to the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals in California.

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