UC Merced Team Will Compete in International Rescue Robot Contest

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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