Virginia Tech Magazine
Making a Difference
Fall 2008

RoboCup competition


A group of current and former Virginia Tech students fielded a team in a prestigious international robotics competition in China this summer, the lone U.S.-based entry in the humanoid division of RoboCup 2008, a contest in which experts from around the world pitted autonomous soccer playing robots against each other.

While Team VT DARwIn was unable to match the U.S. Women's Olympic soccer team's success in winning a gold medal at another recent high-profile competition in China, its members returned eager to continue their research in robotics and looking forward to next year's contest.

"It was really inspiring, to be honest," says team leader Jesse Hurdus (M.S. mechanical engineering '08), who now works at TORC Technologies, an autonomous systems company located in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center.

Team VT DARwIn--an acronym for Dynamic Anthropomorphic Robot with Intelligence--became the first team from the United States to participate in RoboCup's humanoid league when it qualified for the 2007 competition in Atlanta. This year, the team was able to travel much farther to compete, thanks largely to sponsors, including Altria, SAIC, National Instruments, and Pat Artis (engineering mechanics '72). TORC Technologies, which was founded by Virginia Tech alumni, provided technical support.

"Corporate support is helping us a lot," Team VT DARwIn faculty advisor Dennis Hong said shortly before leaving for the contest, which ran from July 14 to 20 in Suzhou, China. "This is an expensive competition."

RoboCup is one of several high-profile scientific contests intended to speed technological advances in robotics and artificial intelligence. Other examples include a competition to develop a car capable of getting 100 miles to the gallon and the U.S. Department of Defense-sponsored races for vehicles programmed to drive themselves. A Virginia Tech team placed third in last year's DARPA Urban Challenge autonomous vehicle race; Hong and Hurdus were both on that team as well.

First held in 1997, RoboCup's official goal is for a team of robots to be able to defeat a world champion team of human soccer players by the year 2050, yet the competition also is intended to spark developments that will make robots more useful to humans, such as helping in rescue operations or assisting the disabled or elderly, among other applications.

For more information on how corporations and foundations are helping to advance research at Virginia Tech, visit the new website of our Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations at

"It's not just fun and games," Hong says. "It's really for forwarding research in robotics. People present research papers and give technical talks on the development of their autonomous robots."

RoboCup team members are allowed to program their robots to perform specific functions on the field, such as forward, defender, and goalie, but the robots have to play autonomously--not controlled remotely by their handlers--for two 15-minute periods.

The roots of Team VT DARwIn go back to 2004, when Hong and his students created a two-legged humanoid robot as part of their research into bipedal locomotion. Since then, he and his students have created progressively more advanced versions. For RoboCup 2008, they fielded the DARwIn III series. Each of the three robots they took to China cost about $18,000, operate on advanced software, and are packed with sensors and motors.

Hong, who was also faculty advisor to the university's 2007 RoboCup team, says this year's contest seemed to have more energy than last year's.

"In Atlanta, the competition was divided up into many different venues because it didn't fit in one. In China, it was in this one humongous, state-of-the-art expo center. All the different teams, with thousands of people, were packed in one site. The excitement and energy at the venue were unbelievable."

Hurdus, who also participated in the 2007 contest, says, "In the Far East, there is a public fascination with robots that is just bigger than it is in the United States. We definitely felt that and saw that as well. There were big billboards advertising the contest. At the competition itself, there were huge crowds of not just roboticists but families and children who came to see robots play soccer on the entertainment side, not just the research side."

Human World Cup soccer contests use the term "the group of death" to refer to a scenario when several good teams are bracketed to play each other in early rounds, making it tougher for any of them to advance in the tournament. Team VT DARwIn had the misfortune to be in RoboCup's equivalent, facing two powerhouses, Team Osaka and CIT-Brains, early in the competition and getting shut out by both. In its third match, Team VT DARwIn played the University of Manitoba to a scoreless tie in the longest game in RoboCup history. After multiple overtimes and rounds of penalty kicks, "we lost literally by a coin toss," says Hong.

This year, as in 2007, Team VT DARwIn competed in RoboCup's kid-size division for humanoid robots between 30 centimeters and 60 centimeters in height. Next year, Hong plans to field a "redeem team" in the teen-size division for robots between 80 centimeters and 130 centimeters tall. Students are already hard at work developing these robots for RoboCup 2009.

Philanthropy as a family affair


Merryman Center
Merryman Center

Hokie football fans know the Merryman name because it adorns the athletic center next to Lane Stadium.

Students at Pamplin College of Business may recognize the name from the title of one their endowed professors.

And Central Virginia residents who hope to attend Virginia Tech but need financial assistance may be advised to seek a Merryman Scholarship.

Indeed, when it comes to supporting Virginia Tech, the Merryman family's generosity has been expansive. Family members are major donors to athletics and have created multiple scholarships, contributed toward building projects, helped the corps of cadets, and supported many academic programs.

"I don't need much for myself, and what I try to do is help," says Floyd W. "Sonny" Merryman Jr., who attended Virginia Tech in the '40s. "It's a lot of fun doing things, helping people."

Merryman says that he realized he couldn't make a living farming; instead, he founded Sonny Merryman Inc., an Evington, Va.-based firm that sells and leases transportation equipment, including school buses. That's why one of the family's many endowments provides scholarships for the children or grandchildren of people who work in or are retired from Virginia's pupil-transportation industry.

Now 84, Sonny Merryman continues to serve on his company's board. His son, Floyd W. Merryman III (management '81), is chief executive and president, and his daughter, Pat Merryman, is vice president, and both share their father's passion for Virginia Tech. All three belong to the Ut Prosim Society, a select group of the university's most generous donors. Sonny Merryman's wife, Lou Merryman, and Floyd Merryman's wife, Lynn Merryman, are also members and major supporters of the university.

Floyd Merryman says he enjoys being involved in Virginia Tech's growth. He is chairman of the athletic program campaign steering committee within the university's current $1 billion fundraising campaign and is on the National Campaign Steering Committee.

"It's fun," Floyd Merryman said of serving on volunteer committees. "You work with a lot of outstanding people from all over the state--the country, actually."

While Floyd Merryman's affinity for Virginia Tech developed at a young age when he attended Hokie football games with his father, Pat Merryman says her involvement is more recent.

"I have just gotten involved with Tech in the last few years, with the Women and Leadership in Philanthropy [program]," she said. "I love sports and everything, but not quite as much as the men do. But I'm just blown away by all professors and the programs at Virginia Tech. They're top notch."

This year, for example, the Sonny Merryman Inc. Endowed Professorship was awarded to Julie Ozanne of the Pamplin College of Business Department of Marketing. Ozanne and management Professor Anju Seth in March became the first female professors in Pamplin to hold endowed professorships. Ozanne says that in a field like academia, where forming partnerships is important for many projects, a named professorship is a respected credential that can help open the door to additional professional opportunities.

According to Sonny Merryman's sister-in-law, Willie Taylor, people who spend any time at all with him are likely to hear plenty about Virginia Tech.

"He is one of your best representatives, I'll tell you," says Taylor, who did not attend Virginia Tech but recently created an endowment to support its College of Natural Resources. She attributes Sonny Merryman's "contagious" enthusiasm as a factor in her decision.

In 2006, the university recognized Sonny Merryman's longstanding support by bestowing upon him its highest honor, the William H. Ruffner Medal. It is clear that whether through word, deed, or family legacy, Sonny Merryman will continue to have fun helping people at Virginia Tech.

ALBERT RABOTEAU is a writer for University Development.

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