If you say football robots, then you say Tech United. The Eindhoven team is an integral part of the major tournaments. No less than eleven times they reached the final of the Middle Size RoboCup, the world championship. Last June, the fourth world title was placed in the trophy cabinet. What is their secret, what makes this team so strong? But also: can other branches, for example, assembly robots, benefit from the developments at Tech United?

Today part 1, next week the second part in which we visit High Tech Systems Center at the TU/e to see how techniques from robot football contribute to robots that better understand the world around them.

With a lot of hum the robots rage across the field, they pass, dribble and shoot just like in ‘real’ football. The robots keep each other away from the ball with short jerky movements. The RoboCup is a competition where robots play autonomously against each other, they are not controlled remotely and decide for themselves who they play the ball to, or not. Every year the rules change a little, if teams are to win, they have to adapt to the rules. By 2050, the organization hopes to have reached the point where they can defeat the FIFA world champion. The project is open source. Everything that the teams use, investigate and discover is shared at the end of the tournament. “This makes the level is higher, in the past you could win with only speed or great passing. Nowadays that’s no longer possible,” says Wouter Kuijpers, team leader of Tech United’s football robots.

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    The reason for the success

    Kuijpers: “We are now working on a new drive system, which should make the robot quicker and, above all, agiler. Now there are three heavy-duty engines that drive the three wheels, but only two of them are running. The new system has 8 wheels and 8 motors are used to power the robot.”

    In the basement of the Gemini building, Kuijpers walks through the ‘own’ test field to the space where the robots are stored. The shed is full of tools and parts roam around. The new platform – as the team members call it – can also be found here. Kuijpers points to a big red button on the robot: “It’s all about safety, only when we know for sure that everything works does it go off.” The team is looking for the ideal combination of hardware and software for this new drivetrain. “Of course, you don’t want the robot to do crazy things. But if it works later, it will go so much faster.”

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    Tech United after obtaining the fourth world title in Canada.

    The team consists of a mix of students, PhD’s and employees of the Technical University, but also, former students are still involved. Kuijpers: “For many team members it is a hobby that got out of hand, they joined the team as a student but cannot let go of the robot football and now combine it with their job.” Kuijpers sees the fact that the team has been together for so long as one of the reasons for the success. Kuijpers: “Because we have been participating in the prizes since 2007, we do not always start from scratch. We are building on previous developments, especially in software. We are now working on optimising tactical aspects, among other things: which robot will drop back if the ball is lost? Or who picks up a falling ball? This is where our experience comes in handy.”

    In addition to their own experience, they can also draw on the knowledge and network of the TU/e. Because not only the soccer robots houses in the basement of the university building but the entire ‘robot department’ of the Technical University is doing research here. Various research groups are looking for new applications here, or are trying to improve existing techniques. Kuijpers: “Here they look at the interaction between sensors and the software of systems. But also how robots react to people, actually everything that has to do with autonomous systems. Furthermore, you have a number of spin-offs that arise from research, such as Preceyes, they developed a robot that supports surgeons during eye surgery. One of our team members works closely together with Preceyes. Then there are the care robots, which also led to a spin-off: Ruvu, they write software for robots. Everyone has their own specialisation, all knowledge is shared. This is a great advantage: different disciplines of the university are located in one place.”

    ‘Football inventions’ for the industry

    Tech United contributes to the education at the university. Kuijpers states: “With us, you can do an internship or work on a graduation project. The knowledge and experience students gain here they can use when they start working for a company.”

    Sioux, one of the companies that work with Tech United does this mainly to ‘keep the lines short’. Among other things, the engineering office invests in knowledge in the field of machine learning. According to Monique Klooster of Sioux, Tech United is looking for solutions: smart robots that do not shy away from the challenges of AI. “We are helping them with data analysis. We think it’s important to support talent, they’re the future and maybe they’ll work for us one day,” says Klooster. Companies benefit indirectly from Tech United’s skills. In collaboration with sponsors, they also test components or develop them themselves. But Kuijpers indicates that they have not yet been approached by external companies to translate the football technologies to the industry.

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    TechUnited zorgrobot Amigo
    Tech United’s care robot Amigo became third in the last @Home competition

    Maxon Motors supplies the engines for Tech United. Steven van Roon, a business developer at Maxon, explains why they support student teams: “It’s partly marketing that you have to be honest about. You want people to see your name. But we think it’s just as important to challenge students. That is positive for their development. The Robocup, but also other student competitions, are excellent examples of this. Students learn to think commercially and competitively. As far as we are concerned, you cannot start early enough to encourage that. But it must be done in a safe environment where making mistakes is less of a problem.” According to Roon, this type of collaboration builds a bridge between industry and science. He argues that industry should invest more money in initiatives such as the Robocup. “Super competitive, but still sharing all knowledge. an ideal environment for the development of students.”

    Working together better?

    The industry mainly benefits indirectly from Tech United’s talent and knowledge, but are there also concrete techniques that companies can use? For a football robot, it is no problem at all to avoid an opponent who emerges from nowhere. But in the ‘real’ world, this sometimes turns out to be difficult. Kuijpers: “Robots in the industry often need a defined environment; if this environment changes, things can go wrong. This makes anticipation difficult.”

    In order to develop industrial robots that respond better to changes in their environment, the TU/e started a research project in collaboration with a number of companies. Tech United is also involved in this project. Kuijpers: “In order to make robots more independent, we have to make sure that they understand the world better. That they understand the difference between a patient and a doctor. Or between a vehicle and a person. The ultimate goal is an open worldview, in which you don’t have to pre-program as much. Collaboration between robots is also important in this respect. Our football robots communicate with each other via Wi-Fi before making a decision – who is behind a ball, for example – and then they coordinate with each other and decide what to do. The care robots are very capable of responding to people. In this project, we are trying to translate this into a useful technique for the industry.”

    Next week part 2, where we go to High Tech Systems Center on the TU/e. Here they work together with the industry on robots that are better able to understand the world around them.

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    About the author

    Author profile picture Milan Lenters is a writer and editor. Through IO, he got to know his native city Eindhoven in a different way and sometimes looks with amazement at the many stories that lie ahead.