By Paul Carboni (DC’13)

Meandering down a cobblestone road in the Netherlands are Carnegie Mellon CMDragons teammates Joydeep Biswas (S’14), Benjamin Choi (S’14, CS’14), Steve Klee (CS’14), Juan Pablo Mendoza (CS’14), and Danny Zhu (S’14). They’re there to play soccer. Well, not literally. Their robot squad will compete in the 2013 RoboCup World Championship, in which a team of six robots, each about the size of a soft-drink can, will try to impersonate soccer star Lionel Messi with an orange golf ball.

The CMDragons franchise is something of a dynasty. Since its inception in 1997—with ever-changing CMU students at the helm and Professor Manuela Veloso as its advisor—the team has won the small-size robot championship four times and finished in second place twice.

This year’s version of the CMDragons hopes their game plan, which is executed by code, will lead to a fifth championship. Other teams, who have traveled from around the world, have other plans.

The first match in the four-day tournament is against a team from Turkey. The CMDragons whiz into action, gliding smoothly over the green field, gracefully outplaying the Turkish bots by making determined dashes to the ball. The CMDragons find the back of the net 10 times while shutting out the opposition. Next up is a squad from Japan, which has a stronger defense than the Turkish bots, but the match ends 2-0, and the CMDragons record their second win.

By the end of the four-game round-robin portion of the tournament, the CMDragons are undefeated, having scored 24 goals and allowed only one. The team continues its march to the finals with wins in the quarterfinals and semifinals.

To get to the championship game has been a grind. The teammates stayed up late each night working out errors in code and developing strategy for the next game. Clearly, though, the extra effort paid off as they made it to the finals, where they’ll face ZJUNlict from China’s Zhejiang University.

The match is fiercely competitive, and at regulation’s end the score is 2-2. A scoreless overtime period follows, so a shootout will determine the champion, just like in the World Cup. The shootout results are 5-4 in favor of ZJUNlict, which means CMDragons have their third second-place finish to go along with those four championships.

The team is understandably disappointed, having come so close to winning the 2013 RoboCup. But Choi says the sting is lessened when, during the awards ceremony, ZJUNlict invites the CMDragons onstage with them to share in the honor.