Kick it like Beckham: RoboCup German Open 2018 in Magdeburg

By Annika Borkeloh 
In mid-June, the soccer World Cup 2018 will kick off in Russia. The warm-up for robotics’ most important soccer event already took place at the end of May – the RoboCup. There, robots and their human developers compete against each other. The ambitious goal: By 2050, a robot team should be able to play against a national team.
With small triple steps, the little robot approaches the goal, leisurely it kicks the football past the opponent. The goalkeeper fights gravity even without any contact and goes to the ground. Slowly, the ball rolls into the net. Goal! The little robots would not stand a chance against the brilliant technique of a Cristiano Ronaldo or the speed of a Neymar. In any case, the game of the machines at the Robocup is entertaining. However, the robot tournament is more than just a show – and more than “just” soccer.
The RoboCup was founded 20 years ago to advance research. Gradually more leagues were added, with international teams from universities and research institutes. In each league, robots have to prove their skills in various tasks that are simple according to human terms but challenging for machines. The robots have to drive through sand or grab objects from a conveyor belt. At the end of April, the German offshoot of the event, the RoboCup German Open, took place in Magdeburg – with KUKA as one of the sponsors.

As with the RoboCup World Cup, the developers had to prove themselves with their robots in five different leagues, ranging from support in everyday life to playing soccer to catastrophic scenarios. In the RoboCup@Work League the use of robots in the industry is researched and tested. The focus lies on the cooperation between humans and robots. Tim Friedrich, developer at KUKA, regularly visits the RoboCup. He is enthusiastic about the ideas – and the enthusiasm of the teams: “It was very exciting again! Last year, there were many changes within the groups. This year, the teams were much better and have improved.”

The developers and programmers of tomorrow are in the center of attention here: An important part of the German Open in Magdeburg is the Junior Championship, where student groups compete for participation in the RoboCup World Championship and the RoboCup Junior Championship. Students aged between 10 and 19 compete with self-constructed robots in the categories OnStage, Rescue and, of course, Soccer against each other – and with great enthusiasm.

“The special thing about the RoboCup is the atmosphere,” says Tim Friedrich. “However, it has become a bit quieter over the years. In the past, the robots were still worked on until three at night. Now the area is closed at a certain time. The participants would work until they drop because they had so much fun.”

At the same time, the focus is always on research. “To participate, you have to submit a research paper explaining how you want to improve the league with your research. In addition, it has to be shown in a video that the robot can do what the team promises,” explains Friedrich. At the event, the developer collects input for his work in the Corporate Research department at KUKA: “The scientific part of the event is underestimated by outsiders. There are some success stories that have developed from the RoboCup. For example, some participants have founded their own company with their ideas.”

So is it realistic that a robotic team will compete against the national team by 2050? “Definitely …” says Friedrich and laughs. “Well, fun aside. I think it’s still a long way to go. Maybe it could be possible – there is still some time left until then.”

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