Send In The Spelbots!

The soccer players storm the field wearing their team uniforms. Playing before a crowd in Bremen, Germany, these athletes may not be household names like Beckham, Ronaldinho, or Zidane, but they are part of a growing field in technology. These “players” are in fact Sony AIBO robots, programmed by the SpelBots, the only all-female African American robotics team competing in a RoboCup.

The RoboCup is an international project that aims to develop robotic innovations in artificial intelligence and search and rescue, while training young technologists.
The seven Spelman College students use artificial intelligence to teach robotic dogs the sweet science of soccer.

“It’s unusual to [put] a black face with computer science,” says team member Whitney O’Banner, a 19-year-old sophomore computer engineering major at Spelman, “[but] it was actually the SpelBots specifically that drew my interest in robotics. It’s crucial for African Americans to be a part of this arena.”

Although the robodogs come equipped with audio program files that enable them to bark and technology that allows them to display levels of canine behavior, it’s up to the collaborative intellect of the SpelBots to interpret and program the strategies of soccer so that the robodogs can actually play the game. To program the robots, the SpelBots use Tekkotsu, an open source framework language, which serves as an interface with Sony’s Robodog AIBO Open R software architecture.

“Robotics helps to open your eyes,” says SpelBots team captain Andrea Roberson. “Working with the robot, you can apply computations into the real world; it’s just like playing sports, you want to anticipate what the other team is going to do, so you have to think of all the possibilities.” The SpelBots are one of 440 teams from 35 countries that compete in 16 different leagues each year.

Under the guidance of Andrew Williams, associate professor of computer and information sciences at Spelman, and with funding support from companies such as General Electric, Apple, and Boeing, the SpelBots train year-round with a primary goal of qualifying to participate in International RoboCup.

Williams created the SpelBots in the fall of 2004. Since then, 16 SpelBots have been invited to compete internationally. “I was thinking of ways to get students interested in programming outside of traditional [approaches],” says Williams, 42, who also heads Spelman’s Artificial Intelligence, Informatics, and Robotics (AIR) Lab.

At RoboCup, the SpelBots compete in the four-legged tournament segment of the event and in the simulated Microsoft Robotics Studio Soccer Challenge. Each four-legged robot team is composed of four robodogs–a goalie and three attackers or defenders–that are programmed via memory sticks to either play soccer or participate in the research-based technical challenge competition.

Last year’s RoboCup in Bremen marked the first time that team captain Roberson traveled outside of the U.S. “It was a great experience for me,” says the senior.” But she notes, “In all the other teams there were no African Americans; it was really eye-opening.”

“Part of my belief,” explains Williams, “is that if African American students are given the resources and the vision, they can achieve a lot