DARPA Robotics Challenge Participants Getting Ready For A Showdown
August 27, 2013

DARPA Teams Gearing Up For Robotic Challenge This December

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is teaming up with the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) to test an apparatus that will be used to evaluate competitors in the agency's Robotics Challenge.

The Robotics Challenge is a competition being held in December that allows engineers to essentially give a humanoid robot the brains to perform a certain task. Teams will have to create customized software, as well as other robot platforms for the competition. The test apparatuses will be used to evaluate the robots' human-like dexterity and mobility, among other capabilities.

"The Trials are designed to spur the development of innovative robot hardware and software technologies that ultimately might be used to reduce hazards to human rescue teams, prevent additional destruction and save lives," Andrew Moore, senior research engineer in SwRI's Applied Physics Division and DRC project manager, said in a statement.

SwRI will provide software-evaluation services for DARPA's DRC Simulator, which is a cloud-based virtual test bed that can be used as an algorithm-development platform and robot command source.

The DARPA challenge is motivated by disasters, such as the Fukushima explosion in 2011 or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Team members will be required to make their robots walk over uneven terrain, climb stairs and ladders, enter and drive a small utility vehicle, handle debris and other objects, and use tools. These challenges present real-world obstacles that could one day help humanoid robots like DARPA's ATLAS be used in disaster scenarios.

Teams will be teaching DARPA's ATLAS robot, which is one of the most advanced humanoids ever built. DARPA says the robot is essentially a physical shell for the software brains and nerves to develop and refine. The six-foot-two, 330-pound robot is equipped with an onboard real-time control computer, hydraulic pump and thermal management, 28 hydraulically actuated joints, LIDAR, stereo sensors, and two sets of hands, arms and legs.

The MIT team participating in the upcoming challenge recently received their ATLAS to play with and prep for the competition. The scientists made an "unboxing" video, which is a popular thing to do for techies who have received a recently released device, such as a new smartphone. The video shows the team having to use a pulley to get ATLAS out of the box and on to the ground. It also gives viewers a chance to see the humanoid in great detail.

The teams participated in DARPA's Virtual Robotics Challenge at first, where they designed software and applied it to a simulated robot to perform a series of tasks.

“The Virtual Robotics Challenge was a proving ground for teams’ ability to create software to control a robot in a hypothetical scenario. The DRC Simulator tasks were fairly accurate representations of real world causes and effects, but the experience wasn’t quite the same as handling an actual, physical robot,” said Gill Pratt, program manager for the DARPA Robotics Challenge. “Now these seven teams will see if their simulation-honed algorithms can run a real machine in real environments. And we expect all teams will be further refining their algorithms, using both simulation and experimentation.”