NASA's robot competitor is cousin to Mars Curiosity rover

Working on RoboSimian robot for DARPA challenge will help Jet Propulsion Lab build a better Mars rover.

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- The rover that NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab has competing in DARPA's Robot Challenge today is something of a cousin to the robotic rover working on Mars.

RoboSimian, a four-legged robot that can use two wheels or stand on three legs, is ready to compete in the robotics challenge under way Friday and Saturday at the Homestead Miami Speedway in southern Florida.

Brett Kennedy, principal investigator for the RoboSimian, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab entry in the DARPA Robotics Challenge, shows off the robot before it takes on its first task. (Photo: Sharon Gaudin/Computerworld).

Many of the 16 teams competing in the challenge are building software for the six-foot-tall, 330-pound humanoid robot Atlas, which was built by Boston Dynamics. The engineers at JPL, however, built their own robot, as well as the software to run it.

"It's really about the job it's supposed to do," said Brett Kennedy, principal investigator for the JPL's RoboSimian team. "In disaster response, the user needs to plan and execute, plan and execute. We need to build a patient robot. Being statically stable allows us to be patient. Even if we're half way up a ladder or a debris pile, it could stop and wait for instructions."

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The Jet Propulsion Lab's RoboSimian will use this detachable hand in some of the tasks during DARPA's Robotics Challenge. (Photo: Sharon Gaudin/Computerworld).

The DARPA challenge is geared to see which team can build the best software to enable their robot to do eight tasks.

Each of the 16 competing teams must put their robot through a series of tasks, which are designed to ultimately create robots capable of working with humans after disasters.

Some teams, which include the 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.

Kennedy, who has been building robots for 15 years, is also a lead engineer for the robotic arm on the Mars rover Curiosity. The rover has been working on the Martian surface since August 2012. The rover has found evidence of an ancient water flow and water current held in the Martian soil.

Curiosity's robotic arm can use tools, such as a drill, to scoop up soil and rock samples that it then places into different scientific instruments.

Kennedy noted that the way the RoboSimian team sends commands to its robot at the competition is very similar to the way ground engineers send commands to Curiosity working on Mars.

"Actually, most of the similarity is in the way that we command it," he said. "The rover on Mars really has to be patient. It may have to wait for its commands for hours every day or even for weeks. RoboSimian has to have that same ability."

Both robots are designed to be able to do some thinking for themselves.

Curiosity, for instance, received a software update earlier this year that enables it to do more driving on its own. If the rover reaches the top of a hill, instead of sending pictures back to engineers on Earth and waiting for instructions on how to proceed, the rover now can decide for itself if it's safe for it to proceed past the hilltop.

RoboSimian is designed so its handlers don't have to tell it how to make every move, such as to move a right front leg forward two inches. Instead, handlers can tell it to move forward four feet and then ready itself to climb a set of stairs.

"It's a similar autonomy and technical philosophy," Kennedy said. "The way the code is written is similar."

The work the JPL team is doing on RoboSimian for the DARPA challenge also will help the team in building the next Mars rover scheduled to launch in the summer of 2020.

The next Mars rover, which will be based on Curiosity's basic design, will search for signs of past life and collectt rocks and soil samples that future missions could potentially send back to Earth. It also will test new technology that could be used in future manned missions to Mars.

"Working on RoboSimian gives us a bigger skill base," said Kennedy. "Working on Simian makes for a better rover."

This article, NASA's robot competitor is cousin to Mars Curiosity rover, was originally published at

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is

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