Getting a Kick Out of Bots

It's practice time. "HOAP," weighing in at 6 kilograms and standing approximately 1.5 feet tall, eyes the goal post, kicks the ball and waits to see if it's good. He's training for the sixth annual World Cup Soccer games, and this player from the Osaka University team will be one of the few stars competing in the "Humanoid League."

Coinciding with the World Cup, being held in Japan and Korea, Robocup 2002 is the largest-ever international football competition for robots, attracting over 200 teams from about 30 different countries. Divided into five leagues, ranging from small-sized robots to humanoid and four-legged ones, the event is designed to accelerate the union between robotics and artificial intelligence.

Totally autonomous, these free-spirited bots decide strategies and play games up to 20 minutes long, with human involvement limited to refereeing from the side. The small robots play in teams of five and dribble an orange golf ball; while the bigger robots play in teams of four and use a FIFA standard-size soccer ball.

As with any game, the objective is to score as many goals as possible. The bots are on their own -- having to plot out a collective game strategy using either global vision (an overhead camera and off-field PC) or local vision (sensing systems onboard the bot). Information is either processed onboard the robot or transmitted back to the off-field computer, using wireless radio links.

Robot soccer has come a long way since 1995, when Professor Kim Jong Hwan of Korea's Advanced Institute of Science and Technology initiated an international organizing committee for the Micro-Robot World Cup Soccer Tournament (MiroSot). The first tournament -- MiroSot96 -- had 23 teams from 10 countries. Teams in this year's tourney come from Brazil, Iran, Poland, Singapore, Romania and New Zealand, as well as the United States and Japan.

Although fun in spirit and fun to watch, the true purpose of professional robot soccer games is to present state-of-the-art research in artificial intelligence and to highlight the potential of collaborative robot teams. It studies the emergence of collective intelligence and provides an alternative to standard robotics: Wherever one large robot has difficulty performing a task, a whole team could be effective instead.

The RoboCup organization's goal is to field a team of fully autonomous humanoid robots that could win against the human world champion team in soccer by the year 2050. "It's a really bold goal," said Professor Peter Nordin of the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, who is working on a bot built around a human-sized plastic skeleton.

"We may have a football team that will play against humans in a shorter period of time and playing fun football, but competing with the best humans will take a long time."

Bots need to be robust enough to withstand collisions. And their sensing systems and software should be able to handle significant levels of noise caused by other sources.

Nordin is looking to create what he calls "inflatable humanoids" as the next generation of a soccer robot. "It may not be as strange as it sounds," he said. "A humanoid with arms, fingers and face may have up to 200 degrees of freedom or 200 'muscles' and it is almost impossible to manufacture something like that economically. It would also be brittle with thousands of moving parts and probably be sensitive to moisture and dirt."


Roomba Tweak for Neat Freaks


Clean freaks can now wake to dust-free floors, thanks to an enhancement to the Roomba robot vacuum that starts the little picker-upper while owners are sleeping or away from home. The Roomba Scheduler is a remote control for programming the vacuum to run at any time, any day of the week.

Shipping in August, the $60 upgrade includes new software, a pair of "virtual walls" to stop the robot from wandering, and a serial cable for downloading new firmware to the Roomba. "It's as easy to program as a coffee machine or alarm clock," said Gregory White, head of the consumer robotics division at iRobot, which unveiled the Scheduler at Wired magazine's NextFest technology show in Chicago on Friday. (Wired magazine and Wired News are separate companies.)

The company expects the Scheduler to be a popular addition to its Roomba line, which costs between $150 and $300, depending on the model. IRobot claims to have sold 1.2 million Roombas since 2002.

IRobot said it made the Scheduler as easy to use as possible, said White.

The robotics company presented demos of several Scheduler designs to a group of beta testers -- health-care workers at the Lahey Clinic Medical Center in Burlington, Massachusetts. "They were not necessarily tech savvy, and maybe a bit on the old side," White said of the beta testers.

The Scheduler remote will look familiar to any iPod zombie: It has a white case, an LCD display and a round button pad in the middle. "My first impression was it looked like an iPod," said Neena Buck, vice president at the research and consulting firm Strategy Analytics, in Newton, Massachusetts, who has seen the Scheduler in action.

Buck said the Scheduler makes the robot vacuum more autonomous and even less obtrusive. Previously, owners had to start the cleaning cycle manually. "It may look like a minor enhancement, but the ability to schedule is profound because it helps take even more of the drudgery (of cleaning) away from the consumer," she said. "Now you come home and expect clean floors."

Buck said she owns a Roomba Discovery, the second-generation Roomba.

Scheduling is a feature that many gadget lovers, such as those at the online Roomba Community, have been clamoring for. White said robot cleaners appeal to consumers in two categories, those he called "cleaning enthusiasts" and those who are "cleaning-challenged." Cleaning enthusiasts are modern-day Felix Ungers, obsessed with having spotless surfaces. The cleaning challenged are those with physical disabilities that make ordinary vacuuming difficult.

Oddly, the Roomba does not appeal to those who simply can't be bothered to clean, White said. "Lazy people don't buy our product," he said. Apparently, lazy people are content to have cluttered, dusty homes.

Cleaning enthusiasts also include "the allergy prone," said Andrea Ridout, host of the home improvement radio program, Ask Andrea, who has a Roomba in her home.

"We have a lot of pets, and it's nice to have (the Roomba) buzzing around picking up cat hair," said Ridout.

Owners of the Roomba Discovery, will be able to update their vacuums to use the Scheduler by plugging the remote into the machine's serial port.

Infrared boundary devices, called "virtual walls," create a kind of invisible fence to prevent the Roomba from entering areas where it shouldn't go. The "walls" are part of the Scheduler accessory pack and can switch on, along with the vacuum, at pre-determined times.





Stand Watch For Security Robots

New security robots with the brains of a PC could give new voice to the clichéd TV catch phrase Danger. Danger, Will Robinson. Robotics operating system vendor Frontline Robotics and mobile robot hardware creator White Box Robotics in May merged to develop a bare-bones platform that could bring the cost of such embedded security robots down into the $10,000 range by November. Indeed, the base hardware components, which are off-the-shelf, are typically priced at $1,200, according to executives at both companies.

Today, robots with similar features cost $40,000 to $60,000, said Tom Burick, founder and president of White Box Robotics. The new technology will bring that price point down. This merger is about the marriage of defense-class technology into this low-cost robotics platform, made from mature technology, echoed Rob Richards, COO of the combined company. The development comes against a backdrop of growing sales of robots for home automation, service and manufacturing tasks. The U.N. Economic Commission and the International Federation of Robotics believe that revenue from this robotics segment will reach $5.2 billion this year, with the number of units increasing tenfold, mainly due to reduced costs. In other words, the segment is ripe for a wave of custom integration that can be provided by the custom-system community. Frontline Robotics, Ottawa, makes an operating system known as Robot Open Control that enables teams of security robots to collaborate with each other. Pittsburgh-based White Box Robotics, meanwhile, is the brains behind PC-BOT, which is essentially a prototype for a mobile robot that uses off-the-shelf PC components as its brain.

Specifications for the 914 PC-BOT prototype call for a steel frame with injection-molded ABS plastic panels; a differential drive system featuring dual 12-volt stepper motors and commercial-grade drive wheels so the robot can get around; a removable motherboard and hard-drive mounting cage; a replaceable 24-volt input power supply; eight 5.25-inch drive bays; two 12-volt batteries; a proprietary I/O card for motor control and sensor input; sensors with Webcam vision, audio and obstacle-avoidance features; and the Robot Control Center software, developed atop a real-time Linux derivative.

Not everything is sold by White Box Robotics, which mainly manufactures the chassis and form factor of the robot. The 914 PC-BOT uses main boards from Via Technologies designed to fit into systems requiring small form-factor cards. The recommended board is a Via Mini-ITX EPIA-TC with 1.0GHz Via CPU, integrated video, sound, Ethernet and USB 2.0. Other items that systems integrators can define: DDR RAM up to 1 byte, the sound system, the type of drives the robot uses, biometrics peripherals and so forth. DoDAAM Systems, a systems integration company in Korea that has already developed commercial-class security systems for airports based on the Frontline software, says it is evaluating the new hardware prototype and will eventually develop indoor security robots that use the technology.

The White Box Robotics PC-BOT is a cost-effective platform for indoor security patrol. The model 914 is geared to consumers, and we will wait for the 10-series technology to make and sell indoor security robots, said Jonathan Lee, vice president of engineering for DoDAAM, Daejeon City, Korea. Burick said among logical targets for PC-BOT are manufacturing environments, where robots could be used to collect information such as environment temperature and transfer it to a PC somewhere else in the facility. The companies also have been approached by an insurance company interested in placing some of the mobile units in elder-care facilities to ensure the quality of care. About 3,000 robots based on 914 PC-BOT should be available from White Box and its partners by year-end 2005, Burick said.