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Page last updated at 11:50 GMT, Friday, 14 August 2009 12:50 UK

Bots bend it like Beckham

By LJ Rich
BBC Click

While football has been taking a summer break, teams of programmers have been taking part in a league of their own, the 13th annual Robocup.

Robot footballers
The ultimate goal... is to pit human players against a dream team of robot counterparts

Football brings nations together in a celebration of the beautiful game, but what if the football players did not need to train, or even get paid?

At the Robocup, recently hosted in the Austrian city of Graz, athletic automata have been doing battle on and off the pitch.

It is not as easy as humans make it look, in particular getting a robot to appreciate the finer points of the offside rule is a whole new ball game.

Robocup teams come in many forms, the physical characteristics range from R2D2 through to C3PO via a strange robot puppy hybrid.

Human skills

computer football coach
Robot players receive constant instructions from a virtual coach

Creating technology, be it hardware or software, that is good at football requires a lot of effort. It requires mastery over team work, real-time perception and decision making - difficult enough for some human players, let alone mechanical ones.

The robotic players in a team either talk to each other on the pitch, like a real game, or they all listen to a central computer which issues instructions, formulates tactics, and then controls them via radio - a football manager's dream.

A typical match at the Robocup involves four robot players and one goalkeeper. The camera above the pitch gathers information and sends it to the central computer for guidance.

Alongside the real robots, Robocup also runs a software competition, where programmers make use of their own AI code to create the ultimate simulated soccer team.

Ultimate goal

robot boots
Fancy footwork is a software challenge

Majid Gholipour, professor of the Mechatronic Centre at Iran's Azad University of Ghazin claims that the Robocup is a much friendlier version of the game than human football.

"The goal in sport is usually to win, but here the goal is to make a leap forward in programming," he said. "For example, in the Software League, everyone is expected to release their codes, and place them at the disposal of the other teams.

"Some teams even set up workshops, and tell the other teams: 'look guys, we have made inroads in these areas, so if you want to use them for next year to make progress, you can.'"

The ultimate goal of the competition's creators is to pit human players against a dream team of robot counterparts within the next few decades.

For Gerald Steinbauer of Graz University of Technology, the main goal is to the continuing development of the technology:

"If we reach this goal, it's not so important," he said. "More important is what we are doing on this road to 2050 and if you look back at the last 13 Robocups, there was such good technology and approaches developed, that there is hope that we will have another useful development in the future."

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