RoboBulls pursue robo-soccer championship

By Russell Nay, CORRESPONDENT
On February 1, 2015

RoboBulls consists of 65 graduate and undergraduate students who meet every week, programming and building a team of robots to compete in this year’s international RoboCup. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

A USF club is building a team of robots to take on the world — one soccer game at a time.

Aptly named RoboBulls, the club of 65 graduate and undergraduate students has an ultimate goal of competing in this year’s Robot World Cup Initiative. 

The Robot World Cup Initiative, or RoboCup, is an annual research project and competition in which robotics teams from around the world build a team of autonomous robots capable of playing soccer against an opposing robot team. 

“We essentially get down to getting the robots ready for competition,” said RoboBulls team captain Muhaimen Shamsi. “We do exercises in terms of programming … and try to build our programming skills that way competitively.”

By building robot soccer teams, researchers also work to provide solutions to current issues, both mechanical and intellectual, in the progression of robotics.

The purpose of RoboCup is to create, by the middle of this century, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players that would win a game against the winner of the most recent FIFA World Cup.

On July 19, robot clubs will gather in China to compete for three days in this year’s RoboCup. While RoboCup is more than five months away, Shamsi and RoboBulls student president Fallon Williams said the team will likely work to the last second preparing for the event.

“As we’re on the plane, we’ll probably be working on these robots if the airports will let us,” Williams said.

Williams, who is majoring in electrical engineering, said she joined USF’s RoboBulls because she was always hands-on in her passion for fixing and improving everyday mechanical objects.

Using these skills for RoboBulls, she began tinkering with robotic hardware, from the robot’s outer frame to the complex inner wiring systems.

“It became a passion to know how autonomous drones … work,” she said. “The future of robotics is where I want to be.”

Shamsi, on the other hand, is majoring in computer science and engineering and said he joined RoboBulls a year ago. Once he found out how he could use programming to help the team, he soon developed a passion for both the programming and the hardware processes involved in building an autonomous robot.

“I wanted something that I could put all of my passion into every single day,” he said. “So that developed into a passion where I really started to love the programming, and then I just couldn’t stop at programming because I wanted to know why my programming was being limited by the hardware.”

Williams and Shamsi said the rest of the team is diversely skilled and everyone brings something different to the group. They also said many of the undergraduates in the group are freshmen who keep renewing a passion for building robots.

“This kid came along, and it didn’t really seem to me at first that he had that much time to give, so we assigned him a task to draw and design,” Williams said. “The next week following, I kept getting these emails of designs, and I thought to myself, ‘Surely (he) has not done this all himself.’”

Williams said the freshman used 3-D modeling to develop advanced designs that the team then printed out. This sort of enthusiasm and talent is in high demand for the RoboBulls, he said, as building an entire team of autonomous soccer robots is a detailed and strenuous endeavor. 

On one hand, the team must worry about building the physical robots from scratch, which means constructing metal frames, connecting motors and gears and building “omni wheels” that allow each robot to move in any direction without having to turn.

“We had a lot of issues in the beginning just getting the motors running and all the electrical wiring put together,” Williams said. “There are so many components to building a prototype because it’s not like we’re buying a robot from the store … everybody got to learn from ground zero how to build a robot.”

Building a fleet of independent soccer-proficient robots requires more than skilled craftsmanship. To operate without human input, robots are programmed with artificial intelligence (AI) to function and win a robotic soccer game. This AI takes information from the field’s overhead camera, which is used by robots on both teams, and evaluates where the robot’s position on the field is, when to kick the ball and where to move. It also possesses layers of strategies and behaviors that allow each robot to be competitive without being controlled.

“You can’t just say go to this position, go to that position and hope it works out. You have to implement a learning AI which learns how your opponents are going to move over time in the game,” Shamsi said. “We have a layer of strategies, which assigns defensive or offensive stances; below that are behaviors for robots, like goalkeeper, defender, attacker; and below that layer are skills, like moving, kicking the ball and chipping the ball … our software is relatively complex, and we’re pretty proud of it so far. It’s been eight months in the making.”

The team must also worry about meeting the deadline for RoboCup, obtaining funding for all the team members to travel to China, preparing for any sort of technical difficulties and making sure everything is in place before the competition. 

As Williams stated, funding may be the largest issue the team will deal with, as Student Government funding is typically only given out for USF student purposes, and the RoboBulls currently have no other source of funding.

“Between now and then, other than building the robots, there’s also a lot involved in running a student organization,” Shamsi said. “You need funding … you need to get more members to develop the AI that’s so groundbreaking. So it’s also a logistical issue, and, of course, keeping a team together, keeping them motivated — it’s not just building robots; it’s also the human factor.”

If the team can overcome these obstacles and attend this year’s RoboCup, Williams and Shamsi said the event would be both a learning experience and a chance to show that USF’s RoboBulls can compete at an international level.

“I don’t care if we win or lose, it’s just about getting there,” Williams said. “You get to network with people, students and coaches that we would never have an opportunity to even meet … For our careers and futures, being there is going to open up so many more doors for these students and I … Since USF is an international research community, it just seems right for us to compete at an international level.”

“I want to give back to USF by making USF competitive at the RoboCup tournament … a team that is to be reckoned with,” Shamsi said. “I know there might be failure because it’s our first time, but my hope is that our 100 percent gets us to a competitive level at the RoboCup.”

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