Disappointing result for England team at robot soccer tournament

Injury, lack of energy and individuality rather than teamwork have led to England coming last in an international football...

Injury, lack of energy and individuality rather than teamwork have led to England coming last in an international football tournament for robots.

Competing in tournaments is part of a research area which has wide-ranging implications, according to England team manager and BCS member Paul Robinson, a principal lecturer in robotics and automation at Plymouth University.

"Robot football integrates three strategically important technologies: artificial intelligence, real-time vision recognition and microrobotics," he said.

Robinson said Plymouth University is the acknowledged UK leader in this area. His team has taken part in the Robot Football World Cup in 1998 and 2002 and numerous other national and international tournaments.

Its greatest success was the 1999 defeat of Austria, then the reigning European champion by a convincing 12-2 score line. The match was played in Germany and featured on German TV.

The team was sponsored by the BCS for the European cup competition in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where England came last in both the three-a-side and five-a-side tournaments, with their best result a 5-6 defeat by France.

The England team was hit by problems from the start of the tournament. It soon found the robots' battery capacity was too small. "Each game lasts 10 minutes, but stoppages take games to 45 minutes and the batteries are exhausted after one and a half games," Robinson said. "After a couple of days the batteries could no longer be fully charged for all the robots before a game. In one game the robots stopped in the second half, leaving the opposing team free to score."

A PC captures images from a camera mounted over the centre of the pitch. The robots, each no bigger than 75 cubic millimetres, are controlled by the PC via a radio. An orange golf ball is used and the tops of the robots are coloured so the PC can track them via the camera. The whole system is entirely autonomous.

The robots are often not robust enough and tend to fail after collisions. The England team lacked a ball scoop, so the robots could not dribble. The strategy software also needs to be developed as the robots are controlled individually rather than as a team.

These and other issues including radio communication and noise on the images also affected the team's performance.

The England team is the only team that builds its own inexpensive, modular robot footballers. Most other countries buy their players from specialist suppliers.

Robinson's team hopes that many of these problems will be overcome in time for the 2003 World Cup in Vienna from 28 September to 3 October.

Researchers are still some way from their ultimate goal of developing robot teams that can compete successfully against humans. A target date for this is 2050.

Robinson's full report on the European tournament and on robot football research is at www.bcs.org/ebulletin/030806/football

Read more on IT strategy