Robotics Challenge 2013

DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is an agency of the US Department of Defense responsible for the development of new technologies for use by the military.   It was first created in 1958 in response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik. The 2013 DARPA Robotics Challenge to be held in Florida was designed to encourage university teams, private companies and government agencies to radically improve the ability of robots to operate in the real world.  Each entry has to navigate an obstacle course including task like tackling uneven surfaces, climbing ladders and even driving an ATV. Here are the contenders:

Meet CHIMP a highly intelligent robot designed by Carnegie Mellon. To avoid the tricky problem of balancing a walking robot as it moves over uneven terrain, CHIMP rolls on rubberized tracks to drive like a tank over obstacles and to position itself to perform manipulation tasks. CHIMP uses full 360-degree sensing to build a model of its environment to provide better situational awareness for a remote operator.

CHIMP 5'2" weighing in at 400 lbs  Photo Credit:  Carnegie Mellon
CHIMP 5’2″ weighing in at 400 lbs Photo Credit: Carnegie Mellon

THOR, a Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot,  created by Virginia Tech which is state-of-the-art, light, agile and resilient with perception, planning and human interface technology that infers a human operator’s intent, allowing seamless, intuitive control. The team emphasized three essential themes in developing THOR: hardware resilience, robust autonomy and intuitive operation.

THOR 5' 10" weighing in at 143 lbs.  Credit:  Virginia Tech
THOR 5′ 10″ weighing in at 143 lbs. Credit: Virginia Tech

“Virginia Tech truly believes that this is why they do robotics — developing technology that will save the world. Though it is a competition with big cash prizes at stake, winning is not the most important thing. Whether we win or lose, if the technology they develop through this project can save even just one person’s life in the future, then everything is worth it.”

DRC-HUBO is the collaborative work of roboticists from 10 institutions who pooled their efforts to compete as team in the DARPA Robotics Challenge.  They have been rewarded with an official thumbs up from the agency.

DRC-HUBO 4' 7" weighing in at 120 lbs. Photo credit:  Kaist Hubo Lab and Rainbow Company
DRC-HUBO 4′ 7″ weighing in at 120 lbs. Photo credit: Kaist Hubo Lab and Rainbow Company

In addition, DRC-HUBO can switch from bipedal to quadrupedal walking and vice versa. This provides the robot with greater stability to walk on uneven terrain or to climb up a hill. The robot’s arms and legs are elongated to better meet the challenges demanded by the DRC competition. DRC-HUBO’s two arms swing back and forth to form legs when necessary, thereby walking freely backwards and forwards.

Meet ATLAS, made by Boston Dynamics  of Waltham, Massachusetts (a company that was recently purchased by Google) described as “tall, dark and humanoid”. Atlas has 28 degrees of freedom in its basic skeleton and features an on-board control computer to convert higher-level commands it receives into the lower-level commands that actually direct the robot how to move.

ATLAS  6’ 1” in height and 330 lbs   Photo credit:  Boston Dynamics
ATLAS 6’ 1” in height and 330 lbs Photo credit: Boston Dynamics

WILDCAT a four-legged robot also designed by Boston Dynamics can run quickly on all types of terrain smoothly galloping and bounding up to 16 miles per hour – faster than any person.  It has amazing stability. WILDCAT could one day be used to aid in search and rescue operations, among many other applications. WildCat runs on a 2-stroke go-kart engine, directly coupled to a hydraulic pump. Right now, it has a small fuel tank to keep the weight down, and is capable of running for about five minutes.

WILDCAT  Credit:  Boston Dynamic
WILDCAT Credit: Boston Dynamic

It’s not so crazy to think that the US military might one day field a completely robotic army, with Atlas firing the weapons and WildCat providing rapid, highly maneuverable support and flanking.

After seeing WILDCAT in action it’s comforting to see that NASA’s entry looks like it would probably fight on the side of superheroes.  Meet VALKYRIE:

VALKYRIE   6’2”  275 lbs  Photo credit:  NASA Rex Features for AP Images
VALKYRIE 6’2” 275 lbs Photo credit: NASA Rex Features for AP Images

Valkyrie has seven degree of freedom arms with actuated wrists and hands, each with three fingers and a thumb. It has a head that can tilt and swivel, a waist that can rotate, and six degree of freedom legs complete with feet equipped with six-axis force-torque sensors. Unlike the ATLAS robots, Valkyrie is battery powered and operates without a tether. A removable battery in its backpack is good for about an hour of activity, and a human can swap in a fresh battery for a spent one in a matter of minutes. Also removable are Valkyrie’s limbs: in just a few more minutes, a damaged arm can be swapped out for a new one, and the left arm can even be swapped with the right arm, since they’re identical in construction.   This should give it a real advantage in the competition.

Note that NASA’s long-range plan is to go to Mars. They will most likely send robots like VALKYRIE ahead of the astronauts.

The winning team will be awarded a $2 million cash prize by DARPA


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