Sunny and Forrest playing 2 on 2 soccer at RoboCup 2014 Brazil. Photo courtesy Adam Stroud
Now that we are back from our very first experience taking the humanoid robots that we designed, built, and programmed from scratch using a 3D printer to compete head-to-head with the best humanoid robot soccer, or football, teams from around the world, many are curious as to how it went. Fantastic, encouraging, satisfying, grueling, learning, improving, optimistic, and dreaming are some of the words that come to mind.
First, how did we do and what was the experience like? It was fantastic. Our performance can be summed up by one of our competitor’s comments to us (their team was this year’s champions). She said that five years ago when they tried to compete, they couldn’t even get their robot to stand up. She said that we had done so much better than they had when they started. Our robot was not only standing but it was successfully tracking the ball, taking steps, and trying to kick the ball. It even serendipitously blocked some kicks and made a save. But the experience goes way beyond the technical challenge. It opened our students’ eyes to a whole new global community of technology pioneers in the middle of a rich cultural experience in Brazil.
Team MU-L8 (left to right): Adam Stroud, Elise Russell, Joshua Panka, Kellen Carey, Darryl Ramgoolam, John C. Williams, and Dr. Andrew B. Williams
This RoboCup experience for our Marquette engineering and computer science students came a long way from when I came back to Marquette two years ago as an alum to become a faculty member. I had to communicate the research vision I had with students previously unacquainted with robots in general and socially intelligent humanoid robots in particular. I also shared with them a vision of building our own humanoid robots that could be used to assist children with their health and education…a robot that could be made affordable for every child’s home one day. I shared with them the intermediate goal of competing in RoboCup in the teen-sized humanoid robot soccer league to help us reach our long range vision. But first we had to build our own robot. Adam Stroud took the lead on learning SolidWorks and designing our robot using the NimbRo-OP design as a rough guide. In order to further our social intelligence research we decided to use a smartphone as an emotional and conversational interface, something that would be unique to RoboCup humanoid robots. We were able to get additional funds from the Provost office and Dean’s office to fund six students for research the summer of 2013 including four students from Universities in Puerto Rico. Raymond from University of Turabo was the most helpful in assisting in our design of our electrical system to power our robot with lithium batteries. Cristina helped with developing some of the initial vision for our Robot which Josh and Kellen then took on to make our actual RoboCup vision. Eventually John took on the duties with programming motions with Adam and Raoul while Kellen did the initial work on our embedded systems along with Adam. Adam was the overall team leader and key designer for the MU-L8 platform. As advisor and director of the Humanoid Engineering & Intelligent Robotics (HEIR) Lab at Marquette University it was important for me to encourage the students to learn how to learn, troubleshoot, brainstorm, think out of the box, and give them realistically high expectations and a vision for what we could accomplish. I also was on hand to providing technical suggestions and direction while also giving them the freedom to fail or make decisions that I knew ultimately would not be optimal but knew that this would be the best teaching experience.
All of the RoboCup 2014 Brazil humanoid robots from the adult-size, teen-size, and kid-size soccer leagues with a few of our students visible
But to finally make it to the RoboCup 2014 Brazil in João Pessoa was both an exhilarating and grueling experience. It was also a dream come true. One of our team members, Elise, said it was like a semester’s worth of learning and three conference’s worth of networking packed into one week. It took its toll on us not only intellectually, but physically and emotionally. However, our students handled it with so much grace under pressure everyone at Marquette would have been extremely proud of how they represented MU. Finally, it was like a dream come true. A year and a half a go it was just a vision and a dream. Even back in March 2014 when we qualified we had no guarantee that we could raise the money to build our second robot and raise the $50K to continue the research to go to Brazil. The new president, Dr. Michael Lovell, sent me an email encouraging our team saying the educational experience the students were receiving was transformational. I truly believe he was correct in saying this because I don’t think these students will ever look at the world and technology the same. Our interim Provost Margaret Callahan also encouraged the students saying that this was a life changing experience and regardless of the outcome they should cherish the time they had there. In my book, because of all these reasons and because of their accomplishments, these students were all winners in my book.
Just another beautiful sunrise in the tropical city of João Pessoa Brazil, site of RoboCup 2014.
Just another beautiful sunrise in the tropical city of João Pessoa Brazil, site of RoboCup 2014.
Traveling to Brazil just days after the human World Cup ended was a once in a lifetime experience. Brazil, already exhausted from hosting the world for the world championship of soccer, was about to host the world championships of robotic soccer, RoboCup, on the shores of João Pessoa. João Pessoa itself was a beautiful city situated near the equator and on the Atlanta ocean with a beach that stretched I believe 15 km. Even though it was winter in Brazil we wore shorts and I personally enjoyed watching the sunrises over the Atlantic ocean on the beach. João Pessoa, Brazil, is the eastern most part of North and South America and the closest to Africa. (If we looked out we could see the continent of African if only we had super vision.)
On the field, our team did amazingly well for the first attempt at becoming world champions at RoboCup. Sometimes people use that term, “world champions” to refer to high school robot competitions. But this world championship represented the best universities, and as we discovered, even companies from around the world. This was truly a global championship with some of the smartest and talented roboticists from elite universities. Many if not most of the RoboCup student competitors were PhD and master’s students while our team was primarily undergraduate engineering and computer science students. Our team consisted of biomedical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering and computer science students. Unfortunately, not all of our students that worked on the project could attend RoboCup for a variety of reasons, including internship commitments, but they all were with us in spirit. Of the eight teams that qualified, only 6 teams actually made it to the competition. We tied our first match against Brazil 0-0. Then we lost from an experienced team 0-4 but our robots actually made some blocks and recorded a saved goal. One of our challenges is we learned how fast the other robots walked and the range of their stability in their walk ranged from unstable to very stable to even getting up by themselves. Even last year’s champion robots from Germany could not get up after falling by themselves which was a big disadvantage to the Iranian teams that could. Then we played last year’s champion team from Germany and lost 0-10. The next day we tied with a joint team from two universities, one from Canada and one from Iran, and tied them 0-0. So heading into our third day we were ranked in 4th place. All that needed to happen was to have the team from Brazil and the joint team from Canada/Iran tie and we lose by less than 4 goals to the other team from Iran, Baset. Baset was a team that was actually part of a power systems company in Iran. They are interested in using humanoid robots to perform maintenance. This was unique to the competition because most of the teams were university teams. On the other hand, Baset was probably the most friendly and helpful team to our team. So on the third day of competition, the Canada/Iran team, AutMan, surrendiptiously scored a goal when their robot fell on the ball and beat Brazil, knocking us out of the semifinals. We ended up losing to this year’s eventual champions, 0-5, but compared to the German team’s 0-10 loss to the same team, Baset, we held our own.
The students learned a lot on and off the RoboCup field from each other and other teams but the most pleasant and surprising things I learned was about their genuine character. My students probably wouldn’t want me to share this but I will. One of our competitors needed a very important component just to get their robot to work and to be able to compete with us. A selfish team just intent on wanting to win and progress would not have shared the component with them. Our students, however, without hesitation loaned the parts to them for the rest of the competition. Also, another team needed to delay their match because they needed extra time to prepare since their equipment had been delayed at a connecting airport. Our students felt like it wouldn’t be right if we didn’t reschedule our match to wait for them to get ready. I was truly amazed at our students’ unselfish character. At the same time, when we needed a soldering iron, someone loaned one to us. Also, most of the teams freely offered advice on improvements and shared how they accomplished some of their technology improvements on their robots. We got a lot of compliments on the design of our robot ranging from beautiful to amazement that we were able to 3D print our robot. Our robot made history in the RoboCup teen sized humanoid league as being the first (almost) fully 3D printed robot to successful compete. I say almost because our robot’s torso was made out of aluminum for added reinforcement.
There were so many highlights from this RoboCup experience but probably the biggest one was for us to open our matches with a tie with Brazil and to come one goal close to making the semi-finals. It was a highlight to see the students perform so amazingly well under pressure, learn a lot , and to have fun interacting and celebrating with students from Brazil. Another highlight was the friendliness of the Brazilian volunteers (Dimas, Gustavo, Marianna, Lucas, and Julie). We had forgotten supplies and needed a power strip after ours blew up. They took us to a hardware store and translated for us because very few people their spoke English. We also needed a monitor and they took us to an electronic store and helped us negotiate buying a monitor. Another hotel person took some of to the grocery story. The RoboCup volunteers also took us to a McDonald’s and grocery store. And on our final day there the volunteers, engineering students from Brazil, took us shopping and site seeing, none of which we could have done without them in the limited time we had. So our students and the new Brazilian and RoboCup friends from around the world were our highlights.
Forrest, our goalie and one of our MU-L8 humanoid robots, attempting to track and block a soccer ball. Photo courtesy Kellen Carey
So where do we go from here in the HEIR Lab? There is no place to go but up although in the end we were not in last place in the competition. Again, I’ve said it before, there are very few universities where a group of undergraduate can get together and building and program their own autonomous humanoid soccer robots and we were one of 6 and in the top 5 at that in the world. But all of this robocup experience fits into the HEIR lab’s master plan and vision to build autonomous, assistive humanoid robot that will help children with health and education. We also know our technology can help others including those rehabilitating form injuries or strokes and elderly or persons with disabilities. Sunny and Forrest, our first MU-L8 humanoid robots, are comparable to the the first Apple I computer in our goal to reach everyone’s home with their own personal walking humanoid robot. MU-L8 2.0 is planned for next summer and we hope to be able to start selling that version to other universities and schools. MU-L8 was also unique in the RoboCup this year because it was giving visual social feedback through it’s SMILE app interface. This is part of the plan to make MU-L8 a socially intelligent robot that can help others through dialogue and social interaction. We have some great plans to improve our walk engine and potentially a complete re-design of the humanoid skeleton of our robot.
We would like to thank everyone that supported us from the President, Provost, Dean, Exec. Associate Dean, Department Chair, all of our crowd funding supporters, all of the wonderful MU alumni, including some very generous engineering alum, and the financial support we received from GE Healthcare, Milwaukee Tool, Rockwell Automation and Sterling Engineering. We are also thankful to our family, friends, and MU colleagues and alum for their moral and prayer support. We thank the Lord God for the safety, opportunity, and accomplishments that He has given us and the grace, courage and knowledge to experience all that we have through RoboCup 2014 Brazil and beyond. Ad majored Dei gloria.
Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D., is Professor and the John P. Raynor, S.J., Distinguished Chair, at Marquette University in the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He is also the Director of the Humanoid Engineering and Intelligent Robotics (HEIR) and former Senior Engineering Diversity Manager at Apple Inc. You can follow Dr. Williams at @outofthebox1 and the HEIR lab at @heirlab or Facebook.com/heirlab.