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 Warner, 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 Warner 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.

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.

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