By Danielle Vabner
Innovation is the name of the game for a group of programmers at the University of Texas at Austin. Located in the Computer Science Department, The Austin Villa Robot Soccer Team is faced with a seemingly impossible task: programming robots to move, speak, and play soccer.
The team is made up primarily of graduate and postgraduate students. Each member is tasked with a specific aspect of programming: Motion, Vision, Simulation, and Behaviors are just some of the categories that make up a robot’s ability to move and kick the ball.
Each year, their efforts culminate in a robot soccer tournament, in which they compete abroad against other teams. The team’s Nao Robots participate in the Standard Platform League, which has taken them to Singapore, Mexico City, Eindhoven, Holland, and most recently, China.
Sanmit Nervakar, a Computer Science PhD student, is in charge of Vision. His responsibilities include making sure the robots can recognize important objects based on their color. According to Nervakar, the team will soon swap out the currently bright orange ball for a more realistic color. This, he said, will present its own set of programming challenges.
“[The robots] can be really frustrating, but really rewarding when it works,” he said. “Having your code actually produce something physically, you connect with it more.”
Jake Menashe, who works on Localization and Vision, said that the team is an extension of the Learning Agents Research Group. Menashe said that as a team of computer scientists who conduct research, they are able to use that to their advantage when programming the robots.
“We use robot soccer as a platform for exploring general problems for learning and robotics,” he said. “All of these areas of artificial intelligence play a role in making a robot, and soccer is just a nice platform for us to do that.”
According to Menashe, the goal is to make sure that the robots are fully autonomous, and can perform all basic functions on their own. This process, which involves in-depth coding and programming, does not happen overnight.
“We devote about half a year to working on them, generally,” Menashe said. “It’s a pretty big time commitment.”
This intensive time commitment means that the team members spend a lot of time with the robots. According to Nevarkar, once they are finished, each one is given a name.
These names are usually based off of well-known cheeses. Alison Brie, Mikey Mozzarella and Gouda Daniels are just a few names that the team has come up with. Through months and months of hard work, The Austin Villa Robot Soccer Team still manages to have a sense of humor.