WPI's team gears up for final battle of the bots

Roboticists race the clock as finals for DARPA Robotics Challenge near

WORCESTER, Mass. -- In about a month, the robotics team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute will have to put their robot up against 24 other teams from around the world in the DARPA Robotics Challenge finals.

After working for several years on this project, the team is down to its last three weeks to make their humanoid robot as autonomous, fast and reliable as possible.

That means they'll be working around the clock until Warner, their Boston Dynamics-built robot, is put in a crate and shipped to Pomona, Calif., for the last challenge in this global competition.

"We are not ready today," Michael Gennert, director of robotics engineering at WPI, told Computerworld. "A month ago, we weren't even close to doing what we can do today. This team is doing a little bit more and doing it a little bit faster every day. We will be ready."

WPI robot Sharon Gaudin

The robotics team at WPI is getting ready for the DARPA Robotics Challenge, where they will go up against 24 other teams from around the world.

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is hosting the finals for the Robotics Challenge on June 5-6 in Pomona, Calif. Twenty-five teams -- including WPI, MIT, Carnegie Mellon University and NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab -- from around the world will compete for $3.5 million in prizes.

The challenge, which launched in 2012, is designed to get roboticists working on semi-autonomous robots that can one day be used in the event of natural and man-made disasters.

In the last challenge in the run-up to the finals, the robots were required to perform eight tasks, one at a time. The robots had 30 minutes to do each task. That, however, was a year and a half ago, much more is expected of the robots this time.

In this year's finals, each team will be tasked with having its robot work through a mockup of a disaster, stringing all the tasks together in one overall situation. The teams also will have one hour to complete all of the tasks, including an added surprise job.

To get through the course, the robots are required to drive a car, climb stairs, use a drill and turn a valve. To complete these tasks, the robots will need to be more agile, better balanced and faster.

Many of the teams in the finals are using Boston Dynamics' Atlas robot. Those teams sent their robots back to the maker this winter for upgrades and now are working with a version, which is about 75% new.

Matt DeDonato, the WPI team's technical project manager, said the redesigned robot is a lot different from the knees up.

The previous 6-foot, 2-in. tall, 330-pound robot was transformed into a 7-foot tall, 400-pound machine. The new Atlas version also has more joints for better dexterity, onboard power, a new adjustable hydraulic pump and three new onboard computers.

The new robot was rid of its communications cable, going wireless.

All of these changes mean that DeDonato and his team have rewritten a lot of code for Warner, re-architecting its software to handle the new computers and communications.

They're up to about a million lines of code to run their humanoid robot. The WPI team already has published several papers on how they're handling the robot's balancing and vision, and they plan to publish several more.

WPI's humanoid robot, Warner Sharon Gaudin

WPI's humanoid robot, Warner, reaches out to grab and turn a valve in a mockup practice course its robotics team has built at the Massachusetts university. Turning a valve is one of the tasks the robot will have to take on during the DARPA Robotics Challenge finals.

"In robotics, software is where most of the advancements need to be," DeDonato said. "To get the robot to actually behave like a human or like we want them to behave, it's heavy on the software."

Now the WPI team is figuring out what their robot can do and what it is still struggling to do.

For instance, late last year the WPI team was to planning to make the robot capable of standing up on its own, in case it loses its balance and falls during the final competition.

However, DeDonato said they're not going to spend any more time on that issue since DARPA has said each team will be allowed one reset with a 10-minute penalty. If WPI's robot falls, the team would likely be able to get the robot up and running again faster than the robot could right itself.

DeDonato also noted, though, that if Warner falls, it's likely to happen on uneven terrain or in the debris course. That would likely mean that the robot would be badly damaged in the fall and might not be able to go any farther anyway.

At this point, the WPI team's robot can complete all the tasks but complete them in the one-hour time alloted. The team wants to get the robot to move through the tasks more quickly but may decide to have the robot skip a task if necessary. Warner can handle the drilling task but since it involves several steps – find the drill, pick it up, turn it on and then use it – it takes up a lot of time. If necessary, DeDonato may decide to skip that task and give up the points it would gain.

The team, however, needs all the points it can get, and the fastest time they can manage, to win the competition.

"I'm hoping not to skip anything but it's always in the back of my mind," said DeDonato. "All the tasks are worth the same amount of points, but not all have the same difficulty. We need to focus on getting as many tasks done in an hour as we can. At this point, our goal is to do them all, but it may make sense to skip some."

The work of all the teams has pushed robotics forward dramatically, DeDonato said.

"Humanoid robotics has advanced 10 years or so in the past two," he added. "We're happy whether we win or lose. The knowledge we've gained and contributed to is why we did this."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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