WORCESTER, Mass. -- Slightly less than a year away from the DARPA robotics challenge finals, roboticists at Worcester Polytechnic Institute are already working more than 50 hours a week on the robot they hope will not only win the challenge but one day act as a search and rescue worker.
"It is very dangerous for people to go in and do search and rescue after a big disaster," said Taskin Padir, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at WPI. "We should be ready and responsive with technology that can help people who need it... As a community, we're one step closer to helping advance rescue robots."
The Robotics Challenge is sponsored by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense.
The three-part challenge is intended to encourage the advancement of autonomous robots to the point that they could largely act on their own after a natural or man-made disaster to go into a damaged building, rescue victims, turn off gas pipes, put out fires and even drive cars.
The first part of the challenge was a simulation held in 2013. The second part, which was held in southern Florida last December, involved 16 teams competing to see which could build the best software to enable their robot to work through a series of tasks, such as walking, using tools and climbing a ladder.
The 11 finalists include teams from WPI, MIT, Virginia Tech and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They will compete for a $2 million prize in the finals, which will be held June 5 and 6, 2015, in Pomona, Calif.
DARPA noted that "many more" teams are expected to throw their hat into the competition. However, Team Schaft, which dominated the second phase of the challenge and took first place withdrew from the finals.
Google, the owner of team Schaft and the hardware and software its roboticists built, pulled out to focus on commercial products. Google bought at least eight robotics companies in the past year.
"Six months ago at the DRC Trials, we began physically testing human-supervised robots against disaster-relevant tasks, said Gill Pratt, the challenge's program manager. "Their impressive performance gave us the confidence to raise the bar. A year from now at the DRC Finals we will push the technology even further."
During the finals, the robots will not be connected to power cords or wired communications. They also cannot be tethered, which would prevent a robot from hitting the ground if it stumbles. If a robot falls, it will have to get back up without human assistance.
Having the robot get up on its own is one of the tasks that WPI's robotics crew is working on this summer, and Matt DeDonato, the team's technical project manager, said it's going well.
When lying on the ground, WPI's humanoid robot, dubbed Warner, can roll over and get to its knees, but it's not quite able to get back on its feet.
"It's a dynamic thing," said DeDonato, who spoke to Computerworld in WPI's robotics lab. "How to fall is another problem. Do you put your hands out to protect yourself? Do you pull your hands in and try to fall on your back?"