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RoboCup Team Places in World's Top Two for Virtual Robot Rescue

July 22, 2008

Ben Balaguer of UC Merced represented his team at RoboCup International in China, placing second in the Rescue Virtual Robots competition.MERCED- The University of
California, Merced, made history July 20 in the RoboCup Rescue
Virtual Robots competition.

No other team had fewer than two developers on site to compete
in the international event in Suzhou, China; UC Merced had only
one. But UC Merced proudly placed second in the final Rescue
Simulation Virtual Robot competition, beating out powerhouses like
Carnegie Mellon University.

“Achieving such a high place at RoboCup is fantastic news for UC
Merced’s research program in robotics and artificial intelligence,”
said Dean Jeff Wright of the UC Merced School of Engineering. “This
is particularly impressive given the exploding international
popularity of the RoboCup competition and the stature of the teams
competing. For us to be so competitive so early in our growth is a
testament to Professor Carpin’s leadership and vision and Ben’s
commitment to quality.”

Team leader Professor Stefano Carpin of the UC Merced School of
Engineering and graduate student Benjamin Balaguer made up the
team. Balaguer traveled alone to China to compete.

RoboCup attracts teams of scholars from the very best research
universities around the world. Competitors in the Virtual Robot
event design software to allow a team of partially autonomous
robots to provide useful information for first responders in the
aftermath of a disaster. Using the simulator allows researchers to
study how rescue robots can work together, bypassing the expense
that would be involved purchasing or building entire teams of real robots.

Cooperative robotics poses long-standing and challenging
problems for robotics researchers. The good news, though, is that
the software they write for the simulator to tackle these problems
can be moved to real robots without any change.

The simulation software, USARSim, is developed cooperatively by
a coalition of institutions and universities, including Carpin’s
group at UC Merced. The software is available for free to everyone.
Adding to the collaborative nature of the competition, RoboCup
hosts a scientific symposium where competitors and other scientists
in robotics can present their best approaches to their peers.

“Rescue robots are much needed by first responders,” Carpin
said. “They were used at the World Trade Center in the aftermath of
Sept. 11. Many limitations emerged in that mission, stimulating
research to improve the technology before we need it again.”

Carpin explained that in the aftermath of an event like an
earthquake, first responders face two contrasting needs. On one
hand, they should enter damaged buildings as soon as possible to
find survivors. On the other hand, they should stay out until the
stability of the building is confirmed.

“In those situations, robots are perfect tools to be sent into
the buildings and get information without risking human lives,”
Carpin said. “If victims are found, robots convey their location,
how to get there and so on, so that first responders can
accordingly plan their mission. In other cases, it is possible to
declare an area victim-free without the necessity for humans to
physically inspect it.”

Ten teams from eight countries participated in the Virtual
Robots Competition. The winner was the SEU-RedSun team from
Southeast University, Nanjing (China). Third place went to Carnegie
Mellon University.

Balaguer is a French-born American citizen who completed his
undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland and joined
Carpin’s research group at UC Merced in August 2007.

RoboCup is the biggest international robotic competition. It
started in 1997 and is held yearly in different locations. Next
year’s competition will be in Graz, Austria. Every year, thousands
of participants organized in hundred of teams compete against each
other. The events are organized around three themes: soccer, rescue
and domestic robots.

The RoboCup federation is managed by university professors from
all over the world. Carpin was elected executive member of the
RoboCup Federation for the term 2007-09.

“RoboCup has been an incredible tool to accelerate robotics
research,” Carpin said. “People don’t like losing games. More and
more often, competitions are used to stimulate research by putting
teams against each other.”

A team under Carpin’s leadership from International University,
Bremen, won second place in the Virtual Robots event at RoboCup in
2006. Carpin also led UC Merced’s first RoboCup team in 2007.

For more information about robotics research at UC Merced, see