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UC Merced Team Will Compete in International Rescue Robot Contest

June 25, 2007

MERCED - Professor Stefano Carpin and student Eric Lam from the
School of Engineering at the University of California, Merced,
don’t expect to bring any trophies home from the international
RoboCup competition in Atlanta next week.

Although Carpin last year led the second-place team from
International University Bremen in Germany, it’s a whole different
ballgame this time around. Because Carpin only arrived at UC Merced
in January of this year, UC Merced’s team consists of one full-time
student - Lam - and one part-time student, Matt Ferea, who have
worked for only a few weeks to prepare for the competition. Both
are undergraduates.

Carpin and Lam will be leaving July 2 to compete against teams
of up to ten graduate students from established universities around
the world who have been working on their entries since last year.
Lam’s trip is funded by the School of Engineering.

“It’s a great learning opportunity for students,” Carpin said.
“After the peer competition is all over, everyone’s software has to
be made public. So we start with a level playing field. There’s no
dynasty of winners or losers. What we want to do is advance
knowledge in the field of robotics.”

He added that RoboCup hosts a scientific symposium where
competitors and other scientists in robotics can present their best
approaches to their peers.

“I hope to learn a lot and have fun,” Lam said. “I can see what
the more advanced teams are doing and maybe improve something from
their work and offer it back to the community. “

RoboCup (
www.RoboCup.org) started in
1997 with one event: soccer. The organizers still aim to have a
team of humanoid robots ready to compete with human soccer
champions by 2050. But today, RoboCup is a highly successful
international event that encompasses much more than soccer. UC
Merced’s participation reflects that broadening interest.

The UC Merced team will compete in the RoboCup Rescue Simulation
League - Virtual Robots Competition. with teams from Brazil,
Germany, Iran and Italy as well as Pennsylvania and Iowa. Carpin
said this event is a great research experience because it brings
together hot topics in robotics, like exploration, mapping and collaboration.

“It’s challenging from a scientific perspective, and it’s also
highly relevant in our society, where we deal with earthquakes,
terrorist attacks and other disasters,” he said.

Carpin explained that robots can collaborate with human rescuers
to enhance safety, entering unstable environments that pose too
great a threat to human life. Some robots were used in rescue
efforts after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Competitors
in RoboCup hope to improve rescue tools to make these kinds of
robots more effective for future needs.

So far, UC Merced is the only UC campus in the
entire RoboCup competition this year. The team has programmed a
virtual robot that can perceive its surroundings, avoid obstacles
and even use a movable arm to get past obstacles and retrieve
visual information using a camera as it navigates the competition’s
disaster-scene course. They hope it will find more victims of the
disaster than its robot competitors and get information back to the
team about how human rescuers could find those victims.

“Our robot is mostly remote-controlled,” Carpin
said. “That can be a good thing in this situation, because it takes
a human to decide whether a person encountered by the robot is
really a victim or not. But autonomy is good, too, and we’re hoping
to have some basic autonomous functions in place before the
competition - like the ability to backtrack and re-establish
communications when needed.”

Carpin likes the virtual competitions because they
lower the financial barrier to entry, and the code from the virtual
robots can be transferred directly to real robots - one of which
sits on his office floor at UC Merced.

He has been involved with RoboCup since 2003 and
last year was elected an executive member of the RoboCup
federation, which organizes the event. Recently, Microsoft
Corporation made an unrestricted $39,455 seed gift to UC Merced to
fund Carpin’s development of a software application similar to
RoboCup’s competition platform.

Lam, who joined the team while taking Carpin’s
Mobile Robotics course last semester, said his involvement with the
UC Merced RoboCup team has changed the way he thinks about robotics
- it’s now a career path he’s investigating.

“I have gained a lot of experience just being a
part of the project, both technically and mentally,” he said “I
always thought robotics was a fun hobby, but there is a lot more to
it than one would think. I like it and I’ve learned quite a bit, so
I will probably pursue related fields in the future.”

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