A knee-high robot preps for his shot, kicks the ball – it’s a neat pass and...goal!

While watching robot football might not yet be on as many people’s agenda as the human version is, the 23rd Robocup – a football championship for AI-players – is at present underway at the International Convention Centre in Sydney, Australia.

With teams from across the world, the competition features robots competing in three leagues: KidSize, TeenSize, and AdultSize, based on their size and technological advancement.

Only it isn’t all about sports – RoboCup in many ways is a haven for the academic robotics nut.


How it started

An idea first mentioned by University of British Columbia professor Professor Alan Mackworth in a 1992 paper entitled On Seeing Robots, robot football became a reality thanks to a group of Japanese researchers working on grand challenges in artificial intelligence.

Professor Alan Mackworth reflects back on his idea and the birth of the tournament in 2011.

A 1992 workshop in Tokyo turned into a serious discussion and in June 1993, a group of researchers – Minoru Asada, Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Hiroaki Kitano – decided to launch a robot competition, tentatively named the Robot J-League.

The aim was simple: “By the middle of the 21st century, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players shall win a soccer game, complying with the official rules of FIFA, against the winner of the most recent World Cup.”

The 1997 games. Credit: RoboCup/AI Magazine

The first official RoboCup games and conference was held in Iran in 1997 with over 40 participating teams and 5,000 spectators.

Academic organisers of the event believed that competition pushes advances in technologies and that there is no better way to secure that while appealing to the public than a game of football. Over two decades later, yearly events organised by RoboCup are attended by thousands of sports fans and geeks.

Teams with names like Tech United, Water and B-human are made up largely of robots entered by university and college teams. Human coaches, or more appropriately, academics designing robots, have to master reactive behaviour, motor control, real-time planning and sensor fusion, vision and strategic decision-making.

A match against humans?

Delaying on the field, moving slowly and carefully, and falling down in the middle of games – robo-ballers still have a long way to go before they can compete with actual humans. But the tournaments have certainly become a hub for research and AI advancement, and hope remains. After all, as the league’s website notes, in May 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue defeated the human world champion Garry Kasparov in chess – so surely a robot team winning against a human team at football isn’t far away either, right?

The games’ 2019 league is sponsored by companies including SoftBank, MathWorks and Festo, and is underway till July 8.