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National Science Foundation
Helping Hands
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Putting the Team in Teamwork
Robots At Work & Play
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Where No Human Can Go
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image of A screenshot of a scrimmage between Carnegie Mellon University's robot soccer simulation

A screenshot of a scrimmage between Carnegie Mellon University's robot soccer simulation teams from 2000 and 1999...

Credit: CMUnited'99 and the ATT-CMUnited'2000 research team: Peter Stone, Patrick Riley and Manuela Veloso. Screenshot by Patrick Riley.

Putting the Team in Teamwork

image of robot scout
Robot Scouts... to coordinate their actions and carry out complex commands from a human operator...

Credit: University of Minnesota Center for Distributed Robotics
If one robot is good, then several robots must be better. However, to work as a team, robots need far more than the team-building exercises offered by corporate consultants. To be a useful tool at disaster sites, for example, intelligent robot teams must work together to explore their surroundings, to coordinate actions on their own and to communicate with their operators.

"Effective teamwork doesn't translate easily into electronics, and at disaster sites, it could literally mean the difference between life and death," said NSF program officer Rita Rodriguez.

To help emergency response personnel in the trenches, a team of researchers is writing the playbook to turn a group of robots into a single well-oiled machine. Researchers at the University of Minnesota, the University of Pennsylvania and Caltech are devising software that will create teams of small robots under the command of a human operator.

Members of the Carnegie Mellon Sony legged-robot RoboCup team
Members of the Carnegie Mellon Sony legged-robot RoboCup team, CMPack'02, which won first place at RoboCup 2002 in Fukuoka, Japan...

Credit: CMPack'02 research team: Manuela Veloso, Scott Lenser, Douglas Vail, Maayan Roth, Ashley Stroupe and Sonia Chernova. Photo by Debra Tobin.

"There are big challenges due to the size and performance constraints of the robots themselves," said Nikos Papanikolopoulos, director of Minnesota's Distributed Robotics Lab. "But on top of the robots, we have to cope with the constraints of the team. How do you keep it from being total anarchy?"

Sports are also natural examples of teamwork, and the international RoboCup competition has set the lofty goal of creating a robot soccer team by the year 2050 that can beat the world's human champions. In the meantime, Manuela Veloso at Carnegie Mellon University has set her sights on dogs.

Veloso and her students in the multi-robot CORAL Lab at Carnegie Mellon have pursued research to let teams of four-legged robots to make plans, carry them out and score enough goals to win a few robot soccer world championships. Led by Veloso, Carnegie Mellon teams have won several RoboCup league championships over the years. NSF grantee Raffaello D'Andrea has also led Cornell University's small-robot team to several world championships.

"Robot soccer made team problems all the more challenging from a research perspective," said Veloso, a professor of computer science and director of the CORAL Lab. "What drives me is the multi-robot aspect and the adversarial game domain. It's kind of like chess, but with robots."

Robotics A Special Report