For all those who have long fancied a world run completely by computers somewhere in the near future, FIRA (Federation of International Robot-Soccer Association) might be the closest you get to such a display of humanoid brilliance. Initially suggested by Alan Mackworth in 1992, robotic soccer is one of the most popular challenge problems in the field of intelligent robotics. Researchers in both Korea and Japan took up the call to use robotic soccer as a challenge problem for Artificial Intelligence, which resulted in the founding of FIRA in 1996 and the RoboCup in 1997. The rules and leagues for the two competitions evolved in two distinct directions. Today each association focuses on slightly different challenges and has provided platforms for many groundbreaking research projects. Founded by a group of professors and steered with the vision of having the world’s first ever human versus robot football tournament by the year 2050, FIRA witnesses fierce competition from all across the globe year after year.
Divided into different categories – Micro-Robot Soccer Tournament (MIROSOT), Amire, Naro, Simulated Robot (SIMUROSOT), Android, Robo and Humanoid Robot – the international FIRA Congress and robotics competition were held for the first time in India in 2010. This drew the attention of students from two of India’s biggest academic institutes, IIT Madras and IIT Kharagpur, who decided to enter the playing field. IIT Kharagpur went ahead and participated that very same year, then took the successive years off to work out their game plan, and made an impressive comeback in 2013, while the students of IIT Madras waited for the right time to make their entrance, carefully studying their competition and developing a framework for the project.
In 2012, a group composed of many ex-Robocon members brought together their expertise to open IIT Madras’ FIRA chapter for the first time, taking part in the competition in the United Kingdom that year. They were the only Indian team at the venue. With a budget of merely Rs. 3 lakhs, in a competition where the cost of the average robotic kits used by many teams totals in at around Rs. 3 crores (in order to achieve these standards, many teams were sponsored directly by the Malay government), the seven member team, under the guidance of Dr. Prathap Haridoss, were able to buy a mechanical system, and establish reliable communication and locomotion of the various robots. The event proved to be a huge learning experience overall.
Equipped with experience and determination, Team Sahas (meaning “courage and strength” in Sanskrit, although the members insist that they truly love the name more because it is a palindrome) as they call themselves, raised the bar in 2013. They spent a considerable amount of their time referring to the papers printed especially for FIRA by the event’s associated congress. Consisting of eleven members, the team was subdivided into Electrical and Communication, Image Processing, Mechanical Systems and Artificial Intelligence (one of the first in IIT Madras), based on their skills and interest.
The team was one of only two teams at the competition to have built their robots entirely by themselves. Re-using parts such as motors and wheels from their 2012 robot legion and designing new parts on Solidworks, they were able to manufacture a very robust and inexpensive mechanical system. On the image-processing front, Team Sahas was the only one in the competition to have had their own customized system in place. Upgrading their 2012 web camera to a higher quality industrial camera and installing algorithms to process just the parts of the image that were essential during the football match, their systems offered a high degree of flexibility. To enable more precise control, they cross-coupled their wheels and have developed a unique PID (Proportional Integral Derivative) control technique, which is due to be published shortly. Despite having no prior experience in programming artificial intelligence, the team was able to develop code that permitted smoother locomotive curve generation. This has further inspired them to extend their participation, from the 5-versus-5 robot football matches in the MIROSOT category in which they have been competing, to the SIMUROSOT category as well, which judges contestants purely on their coding acumen. One of the drawbacks that they faced was from their passive mechanical braking system, which heavily drained the batteries and was not able to provide a good enough response time.
Today, FIRA has become something of an obsession with all those involved in it. Sahas is one of the very few teams in IIT Madras to boast of a member dropout percentage of zero. Composed of students from branches as diverse as Aerospace Engineering to Computer Science spread across their 2nd to 5th years, they plan to expand their team to include doctorate students and faculty advisors in the coming season. Team Sahas looks to continue their mission towards their ultimate goal – participating in a Robo World Cup with the likes of Carnegie Mellon, Purdue and a host of other elite institutes. Viewing the competition as what it was truly intended for by its founders, i.e. a knowledge sharing facility, the team has been able to apply reverse engineering to the designs of their fellow contestants and have laid down a solid plan for progress in the coming years. Right now, they are pursuing major improvements in the artificial intelligence and machine-learning interface.