Over the last few days, I’ve been in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, at the world’s largest robotics competition: RoboCup 2013. Autonomous robots compete in various streams – there is a football competition (with the goal of being able to beat the human World Cup winners by 2050), a rescue competition aimed at disaster response (which gave birth to the Quince robot deployed in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant following the 2011 earthquake in Japan), an @Work competition for industrial robots (previous winner Kiva Systems was acquired by Amazon for $775 million), and an @Home competition (where robots interact and assist humans in domestic tasks such as serving drinks, tidying up, or reminding you to take you medicine).
With 2,500 contestants from over 40 countries, in front of thousands of spectators (including the Queen of the Netherlands!), it was great to have a backstage view of a thriving live competition event. Here are some of the most interesting takeaways from conversations with the innovators and organizers.
Crossover of Ideas
RoboCup began in 1997 as a competition for autonomous robots (i.e., not remote controlled) to play football against each other. As the competition grew in popularity, new leagues began; the soccer competition was soon joined by RoboCup@Home, RoboCup@Work, and RoboCup Rescue. One great takeaway was that the technology that is developed in one stream quickly crosses over to the others, showing the value of a competition program in facilitating crossover of technologies and ideas. For example, the wheels commonly used now by teams in the @Home competition first evolved from the soccer league.
Dissemination of Research
RoboCup has a fantastically open culture of research sharing and dissemination of ideas:
- As the robots compete in the @Work and @Home leagues, a commentator is joined by team captains and judges on the microphone to talk through how the robot operates, what is going on, and answer questions about their approach.
- Teams present their research and technology on screens in open areas for others to learn.
- The live competition is followed by a symposium for the presentation and discussion of scientific contributions involved in the RoboCup competitions.
Competition Drives (Overnight) Progress
Competitions are often praised for speeding up research by making innovators race toward a goal. In RoboCup, this progress was visible overnight. I was fondly told stories by RoboCup veterans of how their teams would compete on day one, see areas for improvement, and turn their hotel rooms into overnight welding workshops and programming marathons, coming back the next day a reinvigorated team.
Collaboration in Competition
All-night working highlights the competitive nature of teams, but at the same time there is a great culture of collaboration among participants. Teams work openly, side by side in the workshop areas, lending equipment and expertise. They will see things they like and discuss with other teams, taking back new approaches to their own labs for next year.
Dialogue with Innovators
RoboCup rules and tasks evolve each year to challenge participants in new ways and keep driving progress. Interestingly, we saw that the RoboCup Rescue stream was putting the innovators at the heart of this by opening a suggestion board for the “wildest, craziest ideas for changes and additions to the league over the next 5 years!” Not only does this keep a finger on the pulse of where research is headed, but open dialogue makes the innovators feel like stakeholders in the competition – evidenced by the fact that participants frequently evolve into the organizers of the competition.
I was at the RoboCup as part of a new project called RoCKIn, which is a European-wide initiative to drive research through competition – inspired by the fun and practical nature of RoboCup, RoCKIn seeks to put an emphasis on a scientific approach of benchmarking research to truly measure and track progress. Read more on the RoCKIn website, or get in touch if you are interested!
Authored by Harry Wilson, Program Manager, InnoCentive