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Germany

A Ballgame with a Difference

At the annual RoboCop soccer event, there are no cheerleaders, grandstands, and no sweaty players - only a number of robots with football expertise.

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Is it Pélé? Is it Beckenbauer? No - it's R2D2!

If you were like me in your teens - slightly overweight and not at all into sports – you probably hated the weekly gym hours at school.

Our sports teacher always made us play soccer. But that game wasn't for me. I was afraid of getting hit by the ball and had no interest in working up a sweat. So I usually stood somewhere close to the sidelines and hoped no one would kick the ball in my direction.

If only soccer robots had been around back then.

RoboCup German Open 2002

Great, I would have thought: A machine that'll play soccer for me. I won't have to move a muscle. That's paradise.

But soccer robots didn't exist yet when I was a chubby teen. The concept of soccer-playing robots was only introduced in 1993.

Automated soccer

Today, you could see soccer robots as a way for geeks and freaks to enjoy a high-tech form of sports.

But robotic soccer is more than that.

The people developing soccer robots are actually solving a number of complex technical problems which can have an impact far beyond "the game". To get the soccer robots to function, they have to combine the latest findings from research into artificial intelligence and robotics.

RoboCup German Open 2002

During the game, the developers and controllers have to analyse fuzzy and constantly changing sensor data in real time, predict game situations and produce control commands quickly. In addition, the robots have to be able to communicate with each other so that they can co-ordinate their game.

RoboCup 2002

Each year, the world elite of soccer robot developers meets during RoboCup, the World Cup for robotic soccer and more than a sports event. RoboCup is a soccer championship, a test for autonomous robots and a summit meeting of software agents.

Roboter gibt brav Händchen

Their shared challenge is to develop humanoid robots capable of playing soccer at a professional level.

RoboCup each year provides the programmers and researchers from different countries with a chance to talk shop and exchange their latest findings and developments.

This year's RoboCup will be held in June in Japan. It will coincide with the 2002 Soccer World Cup in Korea and Japan, where teams of human soccer players from around the world will be competing against each other.

One of the teams that has qualified for RoboCup 2002 is from Berlin: the FU-Fighters.

The team will also take part in the German Open in robot soccer, which some see as the preliminary round before the world cup. The 2002 German Open begins in the western German city of Paderborn on Friday.

The aim of the game

There are different leagues for soccer robots at RoboCup: Simulation, Small-size robot, Middle-size robot, Four-legged robot and Humanoid league.

FU-Fighters competes in the Small Size League, which is also called the F180 League. Here, every robot has a maximum top surface of 180 square centimeters (27.9 square inches). Each team consists of five robots. One of them may be the goalkeeper.

A match will normally last 20 minutes. The playing field is 2.9 meters long and 2.4 meters wide (9.5 times 7.9 feet) and usually made of green felt or cardboard.

The aim of the game is to score as many goals as possible during that time.

It's a different ballgame

In robotic soccer, there are no grandstands, no hot dogs, no cheerleaders. There's only quiet concentration and the occasional grinding sound of metal when some of the soccer robots collide.

Roboter

During the match, the programmers sit on the sidelines with their laptops, transmitting orders to their pre-programmed "players".

One thing that human soccer enthusiasts may be interested to note is that soccer robots don't have to worry about offside – the rule is simply not applied in the automated version of the game.

Another striking difference concerns the possible offenses the "players" can commit: here, "modifying or damaging the field or ball" is listed as an offense. But it's not found in the rule books for human soccer matches.

A match man against machine

But if the developers of soccer robots have their way, the two worlds of human soccer and robotic soccer will meet one day. And then it'll be the ultimate match man against machine.

Their goal is to "develop a team of fully autonomous humanoid robots that can win against the human world soccer champions". They've given themselves until the year 2050 to reach that goal.

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