Tech pit crews prep for robot speedway showdown

Robots take on 8 challenges, including climbing stairs and driving a car

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- A team of engineers, students and professors from Worcester Polytechnic Institute spent hours last night working in a garage normally reserved for NASCAR pit crews, tweaking code and making sure their robot can climb a steep flight of stairs.

WPI's robot, nicknamed Warren, will be taking part today in the DARPA Robotics Challenge at the Homestead Miami Speedway in southern Florida. Team leader Matt DeDonato said he wants to make sure Warren is operating at peak performance.

WPI, which has two teams in the challenge, is, like many other organizations, competing to see which can build the best software to enable their robot -- and others -- to autonomously walk, use human tools, climb a ladder and drive a car.

Each of the 16 teams competing today and Saturday must put their robot through a series of tasks, which are designed to ultimately create robots capable of working with humans after natural or man-made disasters.

Some teams, which include NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Drexel University and Virginia Tech, will attempt all eight challenges. Their robots will have to drive a car, traverse over rubble, remove debris, open doors and enter a building, climb a ladder, break through a wall, locate and close valves, and drag a hose and connect it to a pipe.

Some teams are electing to have their robots focus only on specific tasks.

The teams will be given points based on their robots' ability to handle the tasks with the least amount of human interaction and in the fastest time. The robots will be given 30 minutes to finish each task.

"We've all seen sci-fi movies," said Gill Pratt, a DARPA program manager. "What we're looking for here is a reference point. Where are we right now? Because we are pushing so hard on these things, we have backed off from speed. At next year's trial, speed will count more."

The event is sponsored by DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense.

The tasks are intended to test the robot's mobility, dexterity, perception and operator control mechanisms.

The goal of the challenge is to push robotics technology to become more autonomous, enabling the machines to make decision on how best to move around obstacles and how to get to where they need to be.

The teams of researchers are hoping to develop humanold robots, some of which are six-feet-tall and weigh 330 pounds, that have the ability to go into an area or a building damaged in a disaster, locate injured people, turn off valves or open vents in an attempt to contain damage.

Matt DeDonato from Worcester Polytechnic Institute gives Computerworld an overview of the Atlas robot (made by Boston Dynamics). WPI is one of 16 teams competing in the DARPA Robotics Challenge trials in Homestead, Fla., this week.

At this point in the development of humanoid rescue robots, the machines are in their mechanical infancy, Pratt said.

"This time you won't see robots racing to the rescue," he said. "You'll see them moving deliberately to the rescue."

The biggest challenge, at least for DeDonato's WPI team was working with the robot they were given.

Boston Dynamics, which was just acquired last week by Google, built the two-legged Atlas robot that is being used by many teams in the challenge. Some teams are building their own hardware and software, but for teams like DeDonato's, it's all about building the smarts for the robot.

"The biggest challenge is getting to know the hardware, and everything has to be kept simple," he told Computerworld. "We had wild ideas when we first got [Atlas] but we need to work in the time constraints... And the software guys have the most fun because we take the hardware and make it do something. Software is really where we're going to be cutting edge."

This week's challenge is part of a multi-year competition that's divided into three phases. The event is the second phase. The final phase is set for late in 2014. The winner will receive a $2 million prize.

This article, Tech pit crews prep for robot speedway showdown, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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