At NASA's robot challenge, don't mistake trouble for failure

Teams struggle in autonomous robotics challenge but advances are made

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Team Survey's five software programmers also wrote a lot of their own code. Over the past three years, they've probably written about 10,000 lines of code, estimated Zyda. Most of them used the C++ programming language. Little, the mechanical engineer, also wanted to try some of the coding so he learned to use Python, a programming language geared more for beginners.

The programmers, for instance, created custom code for the robot's three independently moving wheels.

3-wheel robot in field at WPI
Members of Team Survey, a group of independent researchers from Los Angeles, follow their robot through a field as they show what it can do during NASA's Sample Return Robot Challenge at WPI in Worcester, Mass. (Photo: Sharon Gaudin/Computerworld)

Many three-wheeled robots use the back wheel as a castor, meaning that it drags along instead of driving. Team Survey's robot, though, has three wheel pods, each with its own steering motor, which is a wheel motor and two encoders that monitor the machine's steering angle and judge the distance the wheel has rolled.

The programmers needed to write code that would enable the robot to control all of its wheels.

So what caused Team Survey's trouble that knocked them out of the official competition?

It was a Firewire interface for the robot's nine cameras.

"One out of 100 times it doesn't connect when we start it up," Zyda said. "We started it today and the cameras didn't come up. If you can't see, you can't go anywhere."

While the robot failed its challenge, NASA and WPI challenge officials allowed the team to fire it up again and run as a demonstration, but out of contention for any award money this year.

The robot started up on the second try and spent two hours maneuvering around the field, motoring easily and fairly swiftly over the course. Zyda noted that their robot found several objects but was unable to pick up any of them without assistance.

"It shows a lot of promise," added Zyda. "It didn't hit anything. It didn't slip its wheels ... Its motions were a lot smoother this year."

Team Survey plans on competing again next year.

To do that, they'll do more testing and will focus on system integration, one of the biggest challenges for robotics at this level. With so many sensors, cameras and other systems, it's a lot to link together into a seamless operation.

This article, At NASA's robot challenge, don't mistake trouble for failure, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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 sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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