The RoboCup Standard Platform League U.S. Open kicks off today in the Watson Arena.  Bowdoin’s team, the Northern Bites, has spent the past year completely re-writing its code over the past year in the hope of improving performance, and this weekend’s competition will test their efforts.

After last year’s World Cup in Mexico City, The Northern Bites decided to rewrite the entire code for the movements of their robots. This entailed rewriting over 250,000 lines of code.

Team captain Lizzie Mamantov ’13 spearheaded the initiative to renovate the code.

“She really wanted to clean up the code base and create an architecture much more organized into functional groups,” said team member Ellis Ratner ’14. Ratner works on the robots’ localization to help them determine their position on the field.

These updates may enable the team to work with better computer science in the future.

“We want to spend time writing good software and doing good computer science things, but we want our robots to play good soccer,” said team advisor and Professor of Computer Science Eric Chown. “Ultimately, good computer science makes everything easier in the long run.”

While the team hopes to win the Robocup, the drive to be innovative in computer science has guided the team recently.

“I would say the last two years, the thing I’m happiest about with my team is that they’ve been much more invested in doing things the right way than previous teams were,” Chown said.

“A big challenge for Robocup is for new students to come to grips with nine years of work from before they got here. Hopefully, this architecture simplifies things so a new student will find it less daunting than they would have a year ago,” he said.

“It’s a big issue dealing with legacy code,” said Ratner.

Chown started the group after receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation Career Program. 

“My career grant was centered around starting a robotics program at Bowdoin. I got a bunch of money to buy robots and start a program here. I initially bought a bunch of AIBO robots, which are little dogs,” Chown said. 

One of Chown’s students, Doug Vail ’01 went to graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University after graduating from Bowdoin. While at CMU, Vail was part of a Robocup team that won the World Cup in Japan. 

Vail encouraged Chown to set up a Robocup team at the College.

“At the time, I thought we could do it and convince some other NESCAC schools to do it and start a NESCAC league,” Chown said.

Although schools like Carnegie Mellon had teams of graduate students writing the code and working on their Robocup teams, Chown firmly believed that being an undergraduate institution should not deter Bowdoin from participating. 

“My grant was about how students at Bowdoin can do the exact same stuff as students at Carnegie Mellon,” Chown said.

Greydon Foil ’05, a student of Chown’s, wrote the code for an entire Robocup team for his honors project. In 2005, Foil and Chown went to the U.S. Open. Carnegie Mellon’s team, with eight graduate students, two postdocs and a professor, sat at the table next to them.

“They absolutely couldn’t believe it. It was ridiculous to think that one student could write all that code.” Chown said.

The following year, Chown and 12 Bowdoin students went to the World Cup in Germany and finished in the top 16. The team has taken off since then: in 2007 the  Northern Bites, went on to win the World Cup in Atlanta, Ga.

The natue of the game has changed since then, however. Every year, the rules change to make the competition more comparable to human soccer. The original AIBO robot dogs have been replaced by humanoid robots.

At this year’s U.S. Open, the number of robots per team will increase from four to five. The field is also four times bigger than last year’s. 

“The field is huge, and this is a problem for robots. Our robots can see the ball from, on a good day, three meters away. Now the field is about eight meters long, so a robot can only really see the ball when it’s on its own half of the field,” Chown said. 

“That really changes the dynamics of the team. They need to spread out on the field and be able to communicate effectively,” he added.

The recent focus on architectural changes, however, may inhibit the team at the U.S. Open this weekend. While this may be the case, the team will use the experience as a launching point to prepare for the World Cup.

The Northern Bites will compete at this year’s World Cup in Eindhoven, Netherlands from June 20-28. Bowdoin’s team will be one of about four or five from the U.S. competing alongside teams from countries around the world, including Germany and Australia.

Bremen’s team B-Human had been reigning champions of the World Cup from 2008 to 2011, but last year The Austin Villa from The University of Texas at Austin won the competition. 
While the stakes are high at the international competition, the World Cup is a chance for international collaboration, cooperation and innovation.

“The biggest value of the competition is the motivation and opportunity it provides for advanced research,” said professor Peter Stone, director of the UT-Austin Robocup laboratory.

Chown said the nature of this research  is educational and provides opportunities. 

“It’s really a student-centric project. That’s what is exciting about it,” he said.