Big hopes for small players

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The winning 'bot in the inaugural nanoscale soccer games at the 2007 RoboCup competition in Atlanta this month completed the 2-mm dash in 316 milliseconds. To put that in perspective, if the 3 micron robot were the size of a normal soccer player, it would have been moving at a respectable 100 mph.

Soccer has never been popular in the United States, and shrinking it to nanoscale is not likely to make it any bigger. But the demonstration matches at this year's RoboCup were a cost-effective way for the National Institute of Standards and Technology to spur development of tools and techniques for fabricating MicroElectricalMecanical Systems, or MEMS, said Craig McGray, a NIST research associate.

In the year since the idea for the competition was adopted, 'we saw a revolution in ideas and diversity of systems,' McGray said.

RoboCup is an annual competition hosted by the Georgia Institute of Technology to promote development of robotics. It has six competition leagues: Four-legged, humanoid, middle size, small size, simulation and rescue robot (also sponsored by NIST). Nanoscale soccer was a demonstration event at this year's competition played ' for the benefit of fans ' under an electron microscope. Five teams entered: two from Carnegie Mellon University and one each from the U.S. Naval Academy, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

The Zurich team won with a phenomenal design with magnetic actuators using magnetic resonance and electronic clamping. Not only was the little fellow fast, it was maneuverable and scored three goals. The Carnegie Mellon teams also did well with magnetic actuators, and the Simon Fraser team built its entry on the cheap out of plastic epoxy.

The Naval Academy team entered as a systems engineering course project. It was unique in that the team was composed entirely of midshipmen and included no graduate students. 'They were good for midshipmen,' McGray said. 'They turned out a great system' that moved 'at a pretty good clip.'

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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