School students gear up for the Robocup Australian Open

The victorious return of Australian teams from the Robocup World Cup held in Germany two months ago hardly meant the end of the games for the year. Teams from primary and high schools across the country are now working towards the Robocup Junior Australian Open on September 16-17.

Statewide and regional championships are taking place in the lead-up to the Australian Open. Besides providing teams with additional opportunities to practice and show off their robots, these championships also provide winners with travel bursaries to the nationals in Sydney.

Teams design, build and program their robots to perform autonomously under any of Robocup Junior's five categories: junior dance, secondary dance, rescue, premier rescue and soccer. While there are few hardware restrictions, students typically choose to build on LEGO Mindstorms for their ease of use and adaptability.

Dance competitions, involving creativity as well as engineering and programming, have traditionally enjoyed the most popularity - especially among female students, said Gail Laird, NSW chairperson of Robocup Junior. The rescue category, meanwhile, tends to attract students with a passion for programming due to the sophisticated light sensor techniques used in the competition.

However, the premier event in Robocup is soccer - a category for which competition organisers have big plans.

"The ultimate aim of Robocup," Laird explained, "is to create humanoid robots who will take on the World Cup soccer teams in 2050, and beat them!"

But that's more a goal for university level competitors. Robocup Junior is focused mainly on educating school students about robotics and programming artificial intelligence ... and patience.

"It is unbelievable how exciting and frustrating it can be to watch [Robocup Junior soccer]," Laird said. "It's a bit like watching six year olds in their first game, when you can do nothing about them scoring their own goals. But you get very elated when they finally locate that ball, dribble it up to their end and score a goal!"

Laird was involved in organising the NSW statewide championships, held on August 10-11 at the University of NSW. Participating in the event were 580 students from 65 primary and high schools. There were a total of 210 teams competing across the five categories.

St Philips School, Pittwater House School, Lakes Grammar Anglican School, Cranbrook, Roseville Public School, The Hills Grammar School and St Josephs College received special mention as strongly represented schools that entered very successful teams.

"Our teams are very competitive as a rule; Australia has won the international title three times," said Robocup Junior Australia chairman, Ian Maud.

There were nine junior teams representing Australia at the Robocup World Cup in June, three teams from Scotch College in Victoria, Pioneer State High School and Kimberley Park State School. Two teams from Queensland were ranked in the top ten for dance. Our 2005 national champions 'Dynamic Equilibrium' from Corinda State High School, finished second in the soccer league.

Australian teams will once again have the opportunity to contend with international squads at the Australian Open, with over 20 teams coming from China and Singapore. And we have a good chance of coming out on top.

"Australia is doing very well [in the robotics field]," Maud said. "Our teams are very good at adapting things and finding resources, and our students seem to understand their machinery better than other teams."

Robocup Junior is currently run entirely by volunteers, who are usually teachers, parents, University students and staff with a special interest in engineering, robotics or IT. As an increasing number of schools catch on to the program, however, the organisation may soon be expanding to fill roles including: marketing, sponsorship, event management, Web site organisation, liaising with schools, running workshops and training teachers.

"It is a big commitment to run an event for that many students and we are very pleased that it continues to be successful," Laird said. "The competition has a very special buzz about it and visitors always comment on how exciting the learning is for the kids; the most heard comment is 'why didn't they have stuff like that when I was at school'."

The program came to Melbourne six years ago and has since been hosted by the US, Japan, Italy, Portugal and Germany.

"I have never travelled as much as I have with Robocup," Laird said. "Who would have thought that a robotics program would open the world!"

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