A good robot is hard to find -- or build
As competitive research teams stumble at NASA challenge, a look at the struggle behind robotics
Computerworld - WORCESTER, Mass. -- In the first two days of the NASA robotics challenge this week, every team failed.
Every. Single. Team.
NASA officials and roboticists were disappointed, but not shocked, at the less-than-spectacular results at yesterday's NASA robotics challenge -- even though researchers from the likes of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and Oregon State University had worked on the fully autonomous machines.
It's not that robotics is particularly new territory. People by now are accustomed to iRobot's Roomba robotic vacuum cleaning our floors. Robots help assemble automobiles and smartphones. A humanoid robot is even working on the International Space Station, while robotic rovers are exploring Mars, looking for signs that the planet has ever been able to support life.
Those robots, though, aren't fully autonomous. There are humans calling the shots behind the scenes.
The robots that 18 teams from the U.S., Canada, Estonia and Mexico were looking to show off at a course on the WPI campus here this week are simply a different breed of machine.
In its third year, NASA's Sample Return Robot Challenge is focused on advancing fully autonomous robots. Researchers have built the hardware and software for robots that can traverse an area the size of one and a half football fields, find objects and retrieve them.
At least, that's what they're designed to do.
These machines have been designed to start up, figure out where they are and then proceed to do their work -- all without human guidance. Sounds simple, but it's not.
"There are so many ways to fail at this," said Jascha Little, a mechanical engineer on Team Survey, a Los Angeles-based group of individual researchers that competed unsuccessfully on Thursday. "We're still experimenting. This is nothing you can buy. You throw together parts and software libraries and try to make a system out of it.... It's just that hard."
After three years of work on their robot, after writing about 10,000 lines of code and sometimes spending as much time on this "spare-time project" as they do on their full-time jobs, Team Survey's robot didn't even make it off the starting platform.
They weren't alone in their frustrations.
Of all the participants, which included teams ranging from groups of individual researchers to university-led teams, a handful never made it off the starting platform.
But two teams nearly had a successful run.
One robot built by a group from Estonia found a sample on Wednesday, the first day of the challenge. But instead of retrieving the object, the robot accidentally ran over it.
Another team from West Virginia actually found an object and was able to pick it up. However, the robot didn't recognize that it had captured the objected and dropped it. It tried again and again, dropping it each time. By the time the robot stopped trying, the object had been driven into the ground.
"It's a problem of sensor fusion," said Craig Putnam, an adjunct computer science professor and robotics instructor at WPI. "You have lots of different kinds of things you're sensing and you have to fuse that all together to get the big picture. There's vision, odometry, the tilt of the ground, colors and shapes.... It's just a really hard problem."
- Market Overview: Digital Customer Experience Delivery Platforms Forrester states that businesses today struggle to understand and use the tools necessary to create and manage unified, multichannel digital customer experiences across...
- The Growing Demand for Rich Media This white paper discusses how IBM Customer Experience Suite Rich Media Edition can automate rich media workflows, from collaborating with creative agencies and...
- Three Best Practices to Help Enterprises Overcome BYOD Challenges The new Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) environment presents challenges for IT managers and business leaders. This paper discusses how IT managers can address those challenges,...
- Intelligent Imaging for Improved Banking Performance and Profitability A new generation of "Intelligent Imaging" solutions has emerged that is helping banks remove the burden of paper in legacy processes, like loan...
- What should I look for in a Next Generation Firewall? SANS Provides Guidance With so many vendors claiming to have a Next Generation Firewall (NGFW), it can be difficult to tell what makes each one different....
- Why Are Customers Really Deploying an NGFW? It seems every IT Security expert is talking about the NGFW, but what are people really doing? This webcast covers 5 real-world customer... All Emerging Technologies White Papers | Webcasts
Our new bimonthly Internet of Things newsletter helps you keep pace with the rapidly evolving technologies, trends and developments related to the IoT. Subscribe now and stay up to date!