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12 athletic robots get into full swing

27 Oct 2014  | Ann R. Thryft

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Editor's Note: Here are award-winning robots that do not simply talk or do repetitive tasks, but also play sports and even dance.

Lots of humanoid walking robots are not only good at walking and talking—they're also good at running, balancing and the kind of coordinated movements made in group settings that would let teams of them perform together in sporting events, or even dancing. Several of our sports robots have won regional or worldwide acclaim in the RoboCup soccer World Cup, or FIRST Robotics competitions. Others, such as the world's first hockey-playing robot Jennifer, have won platform-specific competitions like the DARwIn-OP Humanoid Application Challenge, where engineers contend for prizes awarded to the most innovative applications.

Robots designed for interaction with humans can also play sports either in teams or alone. One of the most unusual we found is the trash-talking, Scrabble-playing Victor the Gamebot. Not all of these look humanoid except in their general shape. The winners of this year's RoboCup Middle Size league designed by a Dutch team look nothing like humans: Instead, they resemble some kind of alien pyramids hovering just above the ground.

[See also: Will robots put humans out of work?]

 Aldebaran Robotics' Nao

(Source: Aldebaran Robotics)

The classic case of robots playing sports is the RoboCup soccer World Cup, which has several different leagues. Teams participating in the Standard Platform League, where all teams use the same standard platform robot and focus on software development.

The current platform is Aldebaran Robotics' Nao. This 22-inch-tall, friendly looking bot moves fluidly on its own with 25 degrees of freedom (DOF), avoids obstacles, responds to voice commands and learns to recognise faces, voices and shapes, among other talents. Aside from electric motors and actuators, it also has an extensive sensor network. This includes two cameras, four microphones, nine tactile sensors, eight pressure sensors, an inertial board, a sonar rangefinder and two IR emitters and receivers.

For communication, it's equipped with two high-fidelity speakers, a voice synthesiser and LED lights. Nao is fully programmable using software developed by Aldebaran. Other RoboCup leagues include different robot platforms classed by size. The ongoing RoboCup World Cup contest is aimed at developing a team of fully autonomous, cooperative, humanoid robots that can beat the best human soccer players—and reach that goal by 2050.


(Source: University of California, Los Angeles)

Originally developed for education and research purposes by the Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa) at Virginia Tech, DARwIn-OP (Dynamic Anthropomorphic Robot with Intelligence—Open Platform) has also served as a platform for RoboCup soccer team contenders. (RoMeLa has since been transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles.) It's equipped with sophisticated sensors, a high payload capacity, dynamic motion ability and advanced computational power to make it attractive to educators and researchers as a development platform. Its design is based on the larger DARwIn series humanoid robots also developed by Virginia Tech. Several different software implementations are possible, including C++, Python, LabVIEW, and MATLAB.

The robot is 17.9in tall, weighs just over 6lb, and is equipped with a USB webcam and Dynamixel motors from Robotis. Both hardware and software ware are open platform, and hardware can be built and serviced by users.

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