Those make-believe robots in movies that morph into cars, trucks and fighter planes have nothing on a Pioneer P3AT. Though small, there’s more to the wheeled platform robot than meets the eye.
The robot, designed to maneuver over rugged terrain, can be used in search-and-rescue operations. Controlled by a person who sends it instructions on where to go and what to do, the P3AT can be sent into a disaster-damaged building to look for victims or to survey the structure to determine whether it’s safe for a human rescuer to enter.
A group of UC Merced students are headed to Austria to put their robot-programming and operating skills to the test in RoboCup 2009. Established in 1997, RoboCup is the world’s largest robotics competition. As many as 3,000 participants from 40 countries are expected to attend this year’s five-day event, which started June 29.
UC Merced’s three-person team consists of graduate  student Benjamin Balaguer and seniors Derek Burch and Roger Sloan, with School of Engineering  Professor Stefano Carpin  as team leader.
The team will vie for top honors in the Rescue Simulation league. Participants design programs for a virtual team of robots that must navigate a virtual urban disaster area. Balaguer, Burch and Sloan worked long hours – sometimes up to 14 a day – to develop controls and coding they will use during the competition. They used the P3AT as their model to prepare for the competition.
While this year marks the first RoboCup experience for Burch and Sloan, the competition isn’t new to Balaguer. He attended last year and was the sole UC Merced team member. That, however, didn’t stop Balaguer from placing second  in the final rescue simulation competition. He bested teams from other top universities that had several members.
Carpin said events such as RoboCup are a good way for students to get hands-on experience in robotics development and programming. He added that it’s beneficial to undergraduate students because “it exposes them to topics and areas that could encourage them to pursue graduate school.”
Balaguer said participating in RoboCup has been a valuable experience. “It gives students insight into the world of research,” he said, “and a lot of good ideas are shared there.”