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Robocup: Virtual Robot Rescue

 

No other team had fewer than two developers on site to compete in the international event in Suzhou, China; UC Merced had only one. But UC Merced proudly placed second in the final Rescue Simulation Virtual Robot competition, beating out powerhouses like Carnegie Mellon University.

"Achieving such a high place at RoboCup is fantastic news for UC Merced's research program in robotics and artificial intelligence," said Dean Jeff Wright of the UC Merced School of Engineering. "This is particularly impressive given the exploding international popularity of the RoboCup competition and the stature of the teams competing. For us to be so competitive so early in our growth is a testament to Professor Carpin's leadership and vision and Ben's commitment to quality."

Team leader Professor Stefano Carpin of the UC Merced School of Engineering and graduate student Benjamin Balaguer made up the team. Balaguer traveled alone to China to compete.

RoboCup attracts teams of scholars from the very best research universities around the world. Competitors in the Virtual Robot event design software to allow a team of partially autonomous robots to provide useful information for first responders in the aftermath of a disaster. Using the simulator allows researchers to study how rescue robots can work together, bypassing the expense that would be involved purchasing or building entire teams of real robots.

Cooperative robotics poses long-standing and challenging problems for robotics researchers. The good news, though, is that the software they write for the simulator to tackle these problems can be moved to real robots without any change.

The simulation software, USARSim, is developed cooperatively by a coalition of institutions and universities, including Carpin's group at UC Merced. The software is available for free to everyone. Adding to the collaborative nature of the competition, RoboCup hosts a scientific symposium where competitors and other scientists in robotics can present their best approaches to their peers.

"Rescue robots are much needed by first responders," Carpin said. "They were used at the World Trade Center in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Many limitations emerged in that mission, stimulating research to improve the technology before we need it again."

Carpin explained that in the aftermath of an event like an earthquake, first responders face two contrasting needs. On one hand, they should enter damaged buildings as soon as possible to find survivors. On the other hand, they should stay out until the stability of the building is confirmed.

"In those situations, robots are perfect tools to be sent into the buildings and get information without risking human lives," Carpin said. "If victims are found, robots convey their location, how to get there and so on, so that first responders can accordingly plan their mission. In other cases, it is possible to declare an area victim-free without the necessity for humans to physically inspect it."

Ten teams from eight countries participated in the Virtual Robots Competition. The winner was the SEU-RedSun team from Southeast University, Nanjing (China). Third place went to Carnegie Mellon University.

Balaguer is a French-born American citizen who completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland and joined Carpin's research group at UC Merced in August 2007.

RoboCup is the biggest international robotic competition. It started in 1997 and is held yearly in different locations. Next year's competition will be in Graz, Austria. Every year, thousands of participants organized in hundred of teams compete against each other. The events are organized around three themes: soccer, rescue and domestic robots.

The RoboCup federation is managed by university professors from all over the world. Carpin was elected executive member of the RoboCup Federation for the term 2007-09.

"RoboCup has been an incredible tool to accelerate robotics research," Carpin said. "People don't like losing games. More and more often, competitions are used to stimulate research by putting teams against each other."

A team under Carpin's leadership from International University, Bremen, won second place in the Virtual Robots event at RoboCup in 2006. Carpin also led UC Merced's first RoboCup team in 2007.

For more information about robotics research at UC Merced, see http://robotics.ucmerced.edu.