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University creates world's first hockey-playing robot

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JENNIFER'S skill are much like her namesake -- Winnipeg-born Olympic hockey star Jennifer Botterill. She can shoot, stickhandle and skate around a rink. But as the world's only robot hockey player, she does it a lot slower.

The University of Manitoba Autonomous Agents Laboratory, which, among other things, works on humanoid robotics, has created what they think is the first hockey-playing robot.

The robot stands about 55 centimetres tall, 58 centimetres with her ice skates on, and is decked out in a Jets jersey, a tiny helmet and little shin pads to protect her robot knees.

"As far as we know, no one's ever made a humanoid hockey-playing robot. This is a brand-new thing to try and a fairly stereotypically Canadian thing to do," said Chris Iverach-Brereton, a second-year master's student at the University of Manitoba who programmed Jennifer to skate.

When it comes to making human-like, or humanoid, robots, getting them to move like humans has always been a challenge, said Jacky Baltes, professor of intelligent robotics at the University of Manitoba. Scientists have more or less conquered getting robots to walk on consistent surfaces, but ice skating is a different matter, he said.

"If you walk on ground, the grip on the ground is the same in all directions, but on ice you have the force to push sideways. You basically cannot push backwards at all because then the skate will slip under you," said Baltes.

"By putting it on skates, we hope we get a better understanding of walking in general that will allow us, in the future, to walk over much more complex surfaces."

The lab designed Jennifer as part of a competition by the Korean company Robotis, which helped build the robot. Robotis designed the robot's body and arm.

The challenge for the University of Manitoba lab was to not only program the bot to move on ice and play hockey, but also build her a pair of skates.

"We had no idea if the robot would be heavy enough to glide on skates," said Iverach-Brereton.

"There's a lot of trial and error. A lot of the robot falling down. That's why it has its little Team Canada hockey helmet."

Iverach-Brereton said they will hear in March if they won the challenge and will then get to take Jennifer to St. Paul, Minn., to show off her skills and give a presentation at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) International Conference on Robotics and Automation on how they got her to skate.

In the months ahead, Baltes and Iverach-Brereton will work on Jennifer's speed and glide.

However, Jennifer is only one of three robots at the lab that is an athlete. Jimmy and James are also robot sports stars, participating in soccer and basketball. In August, Baltes said, they will take the robots to Bristol, U.K., where they will compete in a sort of robot Olympics called the FIRA RoboWorld Cup.

Unfortunately, ice hockey isn't a robot Olympic event yet, but Baltes said Jennifer's accomplishments are still a valuable contribution to robotics.

"The end goal is that we hope to build robotic firemen or rescue workers one day," he said. "But ice hockey is definitely a really cool one to work on for active balance in a robot."

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2012 B1

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