News Article

Robots with the Goal to Bend it Like Beckham


May 09, 2016

The prevalence of professional service and industry robots is on the rise; but what about in sports?

Throughout history, athletics have been a means to celebrate human physical capability and the triumph over preconceived physical limitations. The internationally beloved and esteemed World Cup and Olympics are among the largest stages to host the awe these athletes inspire.
Futbol teams participating in the international RoboCup are focusing on a new kind of player: robots. Their goal is to field a squad of humanoid autonomous robots that defeat the most recent human World Cup champions by 2050.
Melinda Szabo ‘19 is part of this movement through the Robotic Futbol Club (RFC) Cambridge (slogan: “The Robots are Rising!”), which is a collaborative group of computer science and mechanical engineering students at MIT and Harvard. Szabo, a member of the electrical engineering sub-team, is primarily tasked with configuring electronics to make a safer, faster, and smaller robot.
When Szabo discovered the RFC club, she didn’t hesitate to join. She found the idea of robots playing soccer and driving themselves to be fascinating. It also gave her the opportunity to meet peers from MIT and surrounding schools who were interested in robotics as well.

“I really enjoy that this is a joint Cambridge team. It gives me a chance to meet college students outside of MIT, and it’s always fun to hear about how differently engineering may be taught in some other schools.”

The autonomous robots of RFC Cambridge are cylindrical, have four angled wheels on the bottom for agility, and are about the shape of an actual soccer ball. To kick, one side of the robot has the ability to release 250 volts of charged energy to propel the ball across the playing surface.
To build such machines requires great collaboration across all disciplines. Mechanical engineers work on the physical design of the robot in Solidworks and machine most of the parts by hand. Electrical engineers connect the computer to each individual robot, power their motors, build the drive and kicker circuitry, and design boards from scratch. RFC Cambridge’s computer scientists develop artificial intelligence and strategic motion planning software. Over the past decade the club has competed against other RFCs at the U.S. Open and World Cups in Germany, Austria, and Singapore.
Szabo found an interest in robots back in high school when she was a part of a robotics team. From there her interest in electrical engineering grew and led her to MIT. Her goals after MIT is to work on the AI components of robots.

“Robots are magical things. They are mechanical machines with complex inner circuitry and are brought to life with a few lines of code.”
The inherent collaboration RFC Cambridge requires across disciplines and campuses has been a significant learning experience for Szabo. She has been able to develop a network as well as new friendships, and has found practical applicability to being part of a team that does not meet daily.

“We are each assigned various tasks and partners that we have to coordinate with and take on new responsibilities,” explained Szabo. “It’s been a great learning experience that will definitely be applicable in the real world.”
According to the RoboCup webpage, the goal to win a human vs. humanoid robot futbol match is not about diminishing human achievement, instead “the mission to foster science and technologies for evolving industries and for advancing societies.” The knowledge and understanding accrued through this landmark project will be translated to other socially and economically impactful technologies.

“There is so much you can improve in the world with robots!” said Szabo.

Additional contributions by Stephanie Tran.

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