Grass carpets sprouted inside the Watson Arena in preparation for the RoboCup U.S. Open, which was held at Bowdoin Saturday and Sunday.
Although Bowdoin's fifth-place finish did not match up to its international success in previous years, this weekend demonstrated that the club has the potential to get back in the robotics game by the world competition in Mexico this summer.
After losing in a round robin to Pennsylvania State University, University of Texas—Austin, Carnegie Mellon University, and tying Bryn Mawr, Bowdoin's team—the Northern Bites—lost the fourth-place championship game to Worcester Polytechnic Institute in a sudden death shoot-out. Bowdoin received fifth place by default when Bryn Mawr returned home before the end of the tournament.
Although the Northern Bites have struggled, their advisor Eric Chown, professor of computer science, said he believes that Bowdoin's poor play is only temporary.
The first RoboCup world championship was held in 1997, and presented this challenge to participants: "By mid-21st century, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players shall win the soccer game, complying with the official rules of the FIFA, against the winner of the most recent World Cup," according to the RoboCup website.
Although the original robots were much different, the current models used by the Standard Platform League are free-thinking robots, not requiring human control during play. Essentially, the robots run through a series of code and commands downloaded before play, sensing the field by detecting optical triggers through vision modules in their heads.
Chown suggested Bowdoin start a RoboCup team after receiving a National Science Foundation (NSF) Career Grant for young scientists in 2005, and in the first year Greydon Foil '05 developed the club as part of an honors project.
The next year, the team grew to 12 members, and by 2007 the Northern Bites had won the RoboCup world competition.
B-Human from the University of Bremen in Germany has won RoboCup since 2009.
In 2009, the parameters of RoboCup widened substantially when all teams began using two-legged robots.
Significantly harder to keep upright than the original four-legged models, the new robots created a challenge for programming even the simplest movements.
Said Chown, "I had thought that when the league switched to two-legged robots, Bowdoin was out. It was such a hard problem that I didn't think we could do it with undergraduates...but in 2009, I had a couple of fantastic students who wrote a walk engine, and got it published."
"We ended up with the second-best walk engine in 2009, and finished second in world," Chown added.
However, their success in 2009 was short lived.
"It was both a blessing and a curse, because the people who wrote it graduated, and it's a really complicated piece of software, and it's not a piece of software that a lot of people are interested in," Chown said.
"We didn't have enough knowledge of what had come before, and we spent a lot of wasted time over the next couple of years to make it better...We would've been better off probably spending our time on things other than motion," he added.
The team is currently lead by captains Octavian Neamtu '12, William Dawson '13, and Danielle McAvoy '13, and has recently acquired five new robot models with faster "brains," according to Neamtu.
Even so, early this year, the robots were still struggling to walk on two legs.
After the competition ends each year, the winning team's code is published on the Internet and all other teams are welcome to adopt it for their own use.
This year, the Northern Bites have adapted B-Human's walking code so that they can work on other aspects of the game.
Neamtu added, "You need one or two people to work just on that, and we don't have that kind of man power."
"Their code has been out there, but other teams are generally reluctant to take it because it's complicated and complex and hard to understand, but Octavian worked over spring break...and figured it out," said Chown.
In addition, the Northern Bites have had to figure out how to accommodate this year's rule changes. New rules are added every year to push the boundaries of robotics.
"One of our big problems is our localization system—that is, where the robot thinks it is on the field," said Chown. "This year the goals are the same color as the surroundings," he said. "The robot just looks around and has no idea where it is."
"We use the landmarks like the lines and the corners and the posts to localize," Neamtu said. "We use the ball as something to basically chase after."
This weekend at the U.S. Open, the Northern Bites successfully tried its new localizing technique, in which the goalie is programmed to alert its teammates when the ball is near and warn them not to kick it in its direction.
"We have a couple students working on it, and I think they're on the right track," Chown said. "I'm hopeful that by Mexico we'll be ready to go. If we get that problem under control, I think that we'll be really good again...I don't think we'll be the champion, but we could be in the top four."
Neamtu commented that although RoboCup is competitive, it also provides a collaborative atmosphere that he enjoys.
"I think there's always this sense of friendliness and cooperation," he said of the other teams in the league. "On a regular basis we talk to the other teams and share code sometimes. In the end, the goal is to advance technology...so there's no use squabbling over any differences."
The RoboCup challenge has also complemented Chown's personal research, and since 2010 he has been using a NSF grant for Research in Undergraduate Institutions to make the Bowdoin RoboCup team more competitive.
"My actual research isn't on robots, I just kind of got sidetracked by RoboCup. My actual research is on humans, and how they navigate and reason spatially. If I'm going to do that and I'm going to do robots, I might as well do that at the same time," Chown explained.
"One of the great things about robots and artificial intelligence is that they teach us what is smart and hard about what we do as humans," he said.
"The fact that we're talking to each other and can recognize each other...these are the hardest things we do as humans. Stuff like playing chess or taking a computer science class is actually pretty easy compared to recognizing someone or just walking across the floor, which evolution has sort of made seem easy to us."
The Northern Bites will travel to Mexico City in June to compete against B-Human and other teams from around the world.
"I feel like we're moving in the right direction," Chown said. "I think the things we know we need to do are manageable."