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Team SpelBots Take On Robotic Titans At RoboCup 2007

Pictured (left to right) members of the SpelBots team include team captain Andrea Roberson, adviser Andrew Williams, and Whitney O'Banner (seated ). Not pictured are co-captain Ashley Johnson, Philana Benton and Katrina Stewart.
by Staff Writers
Atlanta GA (SPX) Jun 28, 2007
The history-making Spelman College robotics soccer team competes again at the world's most-renowned competition for research robotics. Once again, SpelBots, the history-making Spelman College robotics soccer team, return to the international stage at RoboCup 2007. This year, the team competes in the inaugural Microsoft Robotics Studio Soccer Challenge demonstration and the Four-Legged Robot Technical Challenge at the international robotics competition, July 1-10 at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

In 2005 and 2006, SpelBots achieved a major milestone by becoming the first all-female, all-Black, and all-undergraduate team to qualify for the international RoboCup four-legged soccer competition. Launched in 1997, this is only the second international RoboCup hosted in the United States - Seattle, 2001. At press time, there are 321 senior and junior teams representing 33 countries slated to participate in this year's competition, which seeks to promote artificial intelligence and robotics research. Seven separate leagues make up RoboCup soccer. They include the four-legged, humanoid, middle-size, small-size, standard robot, RoboCup junior soccer, and soccer-stimulation leagues.

The Microsoft Robotics Studio Soccer Challenge is a four-legged robotics soccer competition simulated on computers. The Challenge requires each team to use a programming language to write software code that controls robotic dogs as they compete in soccer matches on a physics-based 3-D simulated field. "With the Microsoft Challenge we are venturing into new territory, and it shows our students that they have to learn to adapt to new technology," says Dr. Andrew Williams, associate professor of computer and information science and adviser to the SpelBots team.

The 2007 SpelBots team is comprised of team captain Andrea Roberson, a senior electrical engineering and computer science major; team co-captain Ashley N. Johnson, a junior majoring in computer science; Whitney O'Banner, a sophomore computer science and engineering major; Philana Benton, a sophomore computer science and engineering major; and Katrina Stewart, a senior majoring in computer science.

"One of the main goals of SpelBots is to expose the African-American community to robotics technology and the type of education required to enter the field and the types of careers available in a field that is wide open," says Dr. Williams. "Especially looking at what [Microsoft Chairman] Bill Gates says about there eventually being a robot in every home, I want our students to look at getting graduate degrees in computer science and robotics, and being the ones to help decide how these robots are designed and impact society. During the dot com revolution there were not enough people of color involved. With the robotics revolution coming, I want to get students of color involved at the outset."

This year's RoboCup will be a first for O'Banner, a native of Plano, Texas. "I look forward to it as a learning experience," she says. "It will be exciting to see the different teams competing. I feel like the SpelBots have a pretty good chance in the Microsoft Challenge."

SpelBots will also take part in RoboCup's four-legged technical challenge, competing against the 24 teams that qualified for the four-legged robotics soccer challenge. The technical challenge consists of three research-based challenges: an open challenge that involves using four-legged Sony AIBOs (battery-operated dogs); a passing challenge that requires the robotic dogs to pass the soccer ball autonomously; and an obstacle challenge with the robots.

Roberson was a member of Spelman's 2006 RoboCup team that competed in Bremen, Germany. She is focused on programming and strategy for the technical challenge. "Each year, with experience, we have the possibility to get better. This year, I look forward to getting out there and learning more, doing better than last year, and proving our worth."

With the support of companies like General Electric, Boeing and Apple Inc., and an educational partnership with professor David Touretzky at Carnegie Mellon University through a National Science Foundation Broadening Participation in Computing grant, Spelman College has been able to broaden its reach, bringing into the fold three historically Black universities (Hampton University, Florida A and M University and University of the District of Columbia) that are now conducting robotics education and research. As a result, Dr. Williams hopes more HBCUs will eventually participate in future RoboCup competitions.

As the SpelBots prepare for RoboCup 2007, Dr. Williams recalls a quote from Winston Churchill that the team has adopted as its motto and sums up its outlook about the competition: "Success is never final. Failure is seldom fatal. It's courage that counts."

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