DARPA Robot Finals

WPI scientists on the road to DARPA's robotics finals

Roboticists take on advanced autonomy, coding and the unknown in final challenge

DARPA Robot Finals

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These are just a few of the problems that WPI's team is tackling.

Coming in tied for sixth place after the second phase last December, WPI had a team of 35 members. Now, during WPI's summer break, the team is down to about 15 to 20 people, but they generally are still working as much as 50 to 60 hours a week.

That's nothing, though. In the weeks leading up to the second phase of the challenge, DeDonato said the team was running two shifts and had people working around the clock.

"None of this is easy," he added. "We make progress every day. We'll be testing and see the robot do something new. That happens every few weeks, but the progress comes in the code. You don't always see the progress but it's all in the code."

The WPI team wrote more than 758,000 lines of code using the C++ programming language for last December's challenge. They expect to write just as much new code for the finals.

For hand manipulation, for instance, Felipe Polido, a senior robotics engineer on Warner's team, said they have software libraries to work with, but some of the problems they're tackling have never been solved before so they have to write the code themselves.

"Because Atlas is on his legs, he might bend his torso to reach out for something, instead of just moving his arm," explained Polido. "It might require all 28 joints to grab something. We have to code in priorities - keep its balance, move hand, keep elbow down. And the robot has to know how to do that on its own so we can say, 'Grab the object," and it will decide how to do that on its own."

The robotics team tries to plan ahead and write code for actions that make the robot steadier, move faster and manipulate objects better. But the toughest planning is for the unexpected.

"The things that didn't go well last December were the things we didn't anticipate," DeDonato said. "We anticipated a lot, but we can't anticipate everything."

In one task during the second challenge, the robots had to open a series of three doors and walk through them, but the WPI team had only tested their robot in an indoor lab. They hadn't thought about the possibility of wind blowing the door closed once the robot had opened it, DeDonato said.

The second challenge was held outside, and WPI's Warner struggled in the door challenge because of the wind.

"Our algorithms assumed the first door would stay open," DeDonato said. "The robot went to walk through and the wind blew it shut and the robot ended up walking right into the door. It opened it again and the wind blew it shut again."

Despite such setbacks, DeDonato said the WPI team remained calm throughout the challenge and that was a critical factor for them.

"It was a little frustrating," he added. "The control room had to stay calm. There was no swearing. I think that helps a lot. You have to stay calm and move on and find the next solution."

About 11 months before the finals, WPI's team is continually focused on finding the next solutions they'll need to take on their last major challenge.

"I go home every night thinking about problems," said Polido. "I have sleepless nights thinking about the problems, but all the problems are solvable."

This article, WPI scientists on the road to DARPA's robotics finals, 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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