Year: Doctoral student
Major: Computer Science
PhD student Keith Sullivan leads Mason’s robotics team, the RoboPatriots, who compete internationally each summer. Right now, Sullivan and the team are preparing to compete in the 2012 RoboCup in Mexico City, Mexico, this summer.
The Team: The RoboPatriots compete in the kid-size humanoid league with robots that are 30 to 60 centimeters tall. The robots play (or try to play) soccer. Mason is one of only two U.S. teams that compete in this league; the other is Virginia Tech. There are other leagues at RoboCup that other U.S. universities compete in, including a full-size humanoid league, in which the robots can be up to six feet tall.
In the Arena: The competition goes on for a week. Before each RoboCup, there are a couple days of prep where the venue is only open to participants. “You get about 18 hours a day where you are calibrating stuff and making sure everything survived shipping.”
Robot Rescue: Sullivan says there isn’t real competition between the schools at RoboCup. “It isn’t like sports. If you are having problems and you need a minor component, someone will help you out. In Istanbul, we lent some electronics to a French team that had blown up one of the components on their board. Virginia Tech did something similar for us the year before.”
When It Is Like Sports: For the competition, the robots are on their own. They must be autonomous to compete, so they get a signal from the referee that says, “Kick off,” and the game begins. “Then we all just stand around and cheer and yell,” he says. “It’s like watching five-year-olds play soccer. All the adults are yelling, “Run! Kick!” and the robots do whatever they want, just like five-year-olds.”
The Biggest Robotic Challenge: Walking. “It turns out walking is really hard. We just take it for granted. These robots don’t have as much dexterity as we do, particularly in the ankle or foot. None of the robots have toes so it is like walking with swim fins. They can’t do that nice heel toe roll humans can do.”
The Soccer Players: All the robots on the team are named for characters in the 1980s robot movie Short Circuit. “When we put the first one together, we realized he looked like Johnny 5 [the movie robot] with feet.”
How Smart Is Johnny 5?: Not as smart as a smartphone. “This is basically a low-end PDA (personal digital assistant) that you have on board.”
Why He Does It?: On these humanoid robots, there are lots of open research problems. Sullivan is particularly interested in a robot “learning from demonstration as opposed to being programmed,” and this has become his dissertation. “You put the robot in certain situations and tell it: ‘If the world looks like this, do this.’ What I’m interested in is, can I train up a behavior to play soccer? This coming year, we hope to do more training—with a programmed behavior in our back pocket, of course.”