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Thunderbots take top spot in 2019 RoboCup

UBC’s autonomous soccer-playing robot design team earned international recognition this summer with its first-ever first-place finish in the annual RoboCup tournament, held this year in Sydney, Australia.

The Thunderbots placed at the top of the podium in its division of the small size league, which pits teams of six robots against teams from other universities around the world.

Each robot is about the size and shape of a paint can, and uses a golf ball in lieu of the soccer ball that a human team would use. They use a t-shaped electromagnetic plunger to shoot the ball, a small wedge at the front of the robot to chip the ball over other robots and a rubber cylinder called a “dribbler” to give the ball backspin and make it easier to maneuver with the robot.

On top of every robot is an array of coloured dots that acts as a “fingerprint” and during games an array of overhead cameras tracks the position of every robot on the field as well as the ball. This data is all fed back to the software each team is running during the game, which directs the responses of individual robots without any input from team members — in fact, teams can be penalized for touching their computers while play is occurring.

The software coordinates the movements of the robots based on a hierarchy of three different directions: actions, tactics and plays.

Actions comprise a single output like dribbling or kicking. Tactics emerge from combinations of actions, creating a distinct role like goalie or striker for different robots. Plays coordinate all the robots on the field to execute something like a corner kick or a kickoff.

One of the things that makes RoboCup unique among design team competitions is that teams can update their code during timeouts or in between games based on what they are seeing in a particular match.

“There’s actually multiple games over several days, there’s a round robin and then playoffs, so you have a lot more time to iterate and improve and it doesn’t feel like you’re under so much pressure,” said Mathew MacDougall, a fourth-year computer engineering student and one of the team’s co-captains.

That unique characteristic can make for dramatic performance changes over the course of a tournament. “If you watch our first game versus our last one, it’s like night and day,” said Evan Morcom, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student and team co-captain.

While the tournament takes place over the course of a few days, the Thunderbots’ journey to the top spot in its division was a whirlwind, with the team playing their quarterfinal, semifinal and final matches all within the span of six hours.

Their final game went to double overtime and the winning point came off a triple pass that split a pair of defenders in the last ten seconds of play. “When we actually scored and won, it was completely incredible,” said MacDougall.

Now that the team has a first-place RoboCup title to their name, both MacDougall and Morcom would like to see it expand into the 11 v. 11 division of the small size league, a leap that would demand much more complex software development.

They would also like to see the Thunderbots take on a mentorship role for local fledgling RoboCup teams. There are currently only two such teams in Canada, but MacDougall and Morcom see the opportunities it provides as a valuable supplement to course work in engineering or computer science.

“It’s good experience to be more like the real world in an engineering firm where you have all the different disciplines working together,” said MacDougall.