After a year of hard work redesigning our soccer robots, it was time to take them to the real competition.  Last year, the team went to Mexico City, but this year, we went to Eindhoven, Netherlands to compete. The event was so well known, that even the queen of the Netherlands paid a visit to the competition!

We had spent a whole year upgrading everything.  I designed a new ball kicking system that was more durable, more maintenance free, and more powerful than the year before.  The other mechanical systems were more robust as well.  The electrical system also had a huge upgrade.  Burning and smoking electrical boards were a thing of the past!  We have never had a design this robust – ever!

What is RoboCup?

For those who don’t know what RoboCup is, RoboCup is an international robotics competition aimed to further robotics research.  Their long-term goal is to have robots beat the World Cup Soccer team winners by 2050. There are various leagues within RoboCup, such as in robotic soccer (where we participate), home care, rescue, simulation, etc.  Our team, the UBC Thunderbots, compete in the small-size soccer league, which is probably has the fastest game play of all the different leagues.  The robots are generally cylinders with a diameter of about 18 cm and a height of 15 cm.  They can move at around 4 m/s and kick a golf ball at 8 m/s.

One of the other leagues, the Standard Platform League competes with standardized robots for all teams and the key difference between each is the software that is written for the robots.

Another league, the mid-size league in RoboCup Soccer competes with robots that are about a 1/3 of the size of a person. The game isn’t as quick as the small-size league game and they play with a real soccer ball instead of a golf ball. During the competition, it gathered quite the crowd too.

Preparing for the Games

Most teams arrived at the venue when it opened to get to work right away. Everybody wanted their robots in tip-top shape. Our team did the same. Even though our robots were ready mechanically and electrically, the key game changer was seeing which team had better artificial intelligence for their robots. Whenever got time to test on the field, we took advantage of it to make sure our AI was working well too.

Round Robin

In the round robin stage, each team gets four games against other teams in their bracket. Each bracket is made up of five teams and the skill level is spread out based on the rankings of the previous year.

We lost our first two games against a team called KIKS from the Toyota National College of Technology in Japan, and a team called STOx’s from the Universidad Santo Tomás in Colombia. In both of those games, we were simply outplayed because the other team had better software than we did. At the end of the game against the Japanese team, I spoke a bit of my horrible Japanese to them and they were super surprised and impressed that I knew a bit of Japanese!

Because our robots were finished not long before the competition began, the software team did not get a chance to test the code that was written, and so we found out the problems during the competition. Our robots were never able to drive up to a ball and take possession of it. The robots somehow always missed the ball. When the robot had the ball, it didn’t know what to do with it. It sat there holding onto the ball doing nothing. This was so frustrating for our team and even more so for the software team who wished they had more time to test.

We won our next two games against two lower tier teams. One is called RoboFEI, from the Centro Universitário da FEI in Brazil, and a team called RFC Cambridge from Harvard and MIT. It’s nice to be able to say that we beat a team from these two ivy league schools. Looks good when we look for sponsors too!

Lucky Loser Round

Because we had a 2-2 record during the group stage, we played a fifth game, the so-called Lucky Loser Round, to see if we could qualify for the quarter finals. Our match up was against a team called ODENS from the Osaka Electro-Communication University in Japan.  The game was so close that there was a dispute about the rules and whether what our team did was legitimate. Because our robots were not able to move up to a ball and shoot it at the net during the shootout, the referee introduced a workaround that the other team disputed.

Our referee’s native tongue was Portuguese, we spoke English, and the other team spoke Japanese. I didn’t know enough Japanese to translate. Eventually, members from other teams like the Thai and Chinese team came to help with the dispute. During the discussion that took about an hour, I heard people speak English, Japanese, Portuguese, Thai, Japanese, and Mandarin all at the same time. It seemed like nobody had the full picture of what was happening and how to resolve it.

The dispute was resolved when both teams agreed to a specific workaround that made it possible for our robots to do shootouts.  The game ended with a shootout and we lost on the very last shot of the shootout unfortunately. We almost made it to 8th place.  Still, achieving 9th place out of 22 teams was the best that the team has ever done before.

The Competition Ends

Skuba, from Kasetsart University in Thailand, had won the competition for four years in a row since 2009, but this year they had a surprising finish that was not even the top 4.  The second place team, ZJUNlict from Zhejiang University in China had beat them early in the quarterfinals.  ZJUNlict’s strongest opponent this year was CMDragons, from Carnegie Mellon University in USA.  In the final round, they were tied for the entire game and the game went to shootouts where CMDragons lost by one goal.  ZJUNlict had made first place in the RoboCup 2013 in the Small Size League.

As the competition came to a close, we said goodbye to the people on other teams that we met and as a parting gift from the German team ER-Force, they gave us a German flag with the names of all their team members signed onto it, with the message, “for our amazing friends, the Thunderbots, from team ER-Force”.

I realized now that the competition is over, I probably wouldn’t be going to competitions in the future because I’ve graduated from university. It made me feel a little bit sad that I couldn’t compete anymore, but at least I can still help out the team wherever they need it.

Link to photo album here