Inside Extreme Scale Tech|Thursday, December 25, 2014
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Nine Teams Break into the Next Round of the DARPA Robotics Challenge 

While some may be worried for Skynet and a robot uprising, robotics leaders around the globe would tell you we still have a long way to go, which has led many to the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC). Last week marked the DRC’s first major test: the Virtual Robotics Challenge (VRC). From June 17-21, 26 teams from an original pool of 126 battled to the top six spots in a virtual disaster area, but in an interesting twist, nine teams will be moving to the next round.

Specifically, the DRC challenged entrants to navigate a robot through a disaster zone. If any team is successful, it means that a robot model could potentially replace a human first responder whose life and health could be at risk in an environment such as a collapsed building.

The VRC is designed to test locomotion, perception and manipulation in a virtual environment. And while that may sound relatively straight-forward, a task as simple as turning on a hose can require an entire team of robotics experts and engineers to solve. One guideline of the challenge is to design a robot that is capable of completing the tasks on their own, although they should be built to allow for a human driver as well. So this isn’t a system where the robot will sit dormant until a roboticist takes up the remote control. 

Putting these skills to the test is a simulator built by the Open Source Robotics Foundation that includes a mud pit, a driving course, and a cinderblock-filled obstacle course designed to mimic a disaster zone. Each team set forth with the goal of demonstrating the most stable, adept robot AI that would deem them worthy of one of the DRC’s six ATLAS robots granted to VRC victors. But the VRC isn’t the real finish line.

From there, the teams’ ultimate goal is to test their robot on a physical, rather than virtual, playing field in December of this year. Originally, DARPA allocated spots in the next round for the top six contestants of the virtual round of competition, but as their results announcement explained, “good sportsmanship and generosity will allow members of the top nine teams to move forward.”

Among the winners are Team IHMC, WPI Robotics Engineering C Squad, MIT, Team TRACLabs, JPL/UCSB/Caltech, TORC, Team K, TROOPER, and Case Western University. The extra three teams were able to move forward thanks to contributions from JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), which also has a team in the competition’s A Track.

The tracks are divided based on funding as well as which qualifying events they must compete in. A Track teams do not have to compete in the virtual challenge, as they already have a physical prototype that will compete in the final rounds of competition. However, JPL had two teams: one in the prestigious A track and one that went through the VRC.

After the VRC, JPL decided to merge their two teams, which allowed them to offer the bulk of the resources they won in the VRC to other teams, such as TROOPER, and the merged team made up of Team K and Case Western. TROOPER will be using the ATLAS robot awarded to JPL, while Team K and Case Western, now called HKU, will be using an ATLAS donated from Hong Kong University.

The merger of JPL’s two teams, as well as the partnership between Team K, Case Western and Hong Kong University means that by the next round, the nine teams that advanced today will be consolidated into seven teams.

One of the lucky teams that barely made it into the next round is TROOPER, which is made up of Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Laboratories (ATL), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Pennsylvania. Following the announcement that they’d be moving on, Bill Borgia, director of Robotic Systems at Lockheed Martin ATL, explained just what made the challenge so tough.

“Our team’s software solution controls a robot in a state of ‘supervised autonomy,'” said Borgia. “This means a robot completes simple tasks independent of the operator. Then, if there’s something tricky the robot can’t work independently, a remote, and largely untrained, operator will step in and assist.”

Using similar systems, many teams put down solid, textbook rounds that qualified them to move on, with robots that largely mirrored humans in the way they walked, drove, and operated a fire hose. While this is about what DARPA expected considering the simulated ATLAS robot’s anthropomorphic design, the real question was whether robots would be prone to falling over and potentially breaking.  But for the nine successful teams, damage to the robot was not a concern, at least as far as the simulator was concerned.

The next leg of the challenge is the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials, the first physical competition, will be held in December. The Robotics Challenge Finals will be held one year later, where teams will compete for $2 million.

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