DARPA challenge greatly propelled humanoid robotics -- and WPI

Two and a half years of work prepare teachers and researchers for their next jobs

After working for two and a half years, putting in thousands of hours and writing more than a million lines of code, the robotics team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) finished in the top third of competitors in DARPA's Robotics Challenge.

However, maybe even more important, they not only helped advance the field of humanoid robotics, but some believe their work also made them better researchers and better teachers.

"What will change for me is the next project I'll take on," said Taskin Padir, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at WPI. "We have grandiose goals. And the knowledge we gained will be applicable to projects we work on next. When I think about autonomy, there are a lot of building blocks -- perception, mobility, manipulation, interaction, interfaces. Now we have resources in each one of those buildings blocks for the next application. It may be disaster response, it may be space exploration."

Last month, WPI was one of the 24 teams from around the world that competed in the finals of the two-and-a-half-year-long robotics competition funded by DARPA, the research arm of the U.S. military.

The goal of the competition was to spur researchers to build more autonomous, more balanced and generally more capable robots that one day can be sent into disaster situations to turn off disabled systems, hunt for victims and assess damage.

In the finals, each team's robot had to take on a simulated disaster scenario that called on them to take on a series of eight tasks, including driving a car, opening a door, turning a valve and walking over a pile or rubble. Each robot had only an hour to complete its tasks, for a maximum score of eight points - one for each task completed successfully.

Only three teams were able to grab all eight points.

WPI, working with roboticists from Carnegie Mellon University, earned seven points and took seventh place overall.

While members of WPI's team were frustrated and disappointed they didn't master all eight tasks -- their robot dropped the drill on both days of the competition -- they said they were happy to be in the top eight.

WPI also had the distinction of being the only team running a Boston Dynamics-built Atlas humanoid robot that did not fall over during the finals.

"I think we are now a more recognized robotics program," said Padir who was back at WPI after the finals were over. "On any given day I will enjoy the company of MIT, JPL and Carnegie Mellon in the top eight. It's a testament to not only the faculty but the students. They put long hours into the project... This was one major learning experience."

Padir also said that the DARPA challenge advanced the state of humanoid robotics.

"The humanoid robotics group is a relatively new field in robotics but this challenge brought together a lot of people to solve the problem," he said, adding the field has been advanced 10-fold in the last few years. "There are a lot of justifications for using humanoid robots in a disaster situation. Humanoids allow us to go into different unstructured environments. Wheels are good, Tracks are good. But if you need to climb up ladders, stairs and go through narrow crossings, you do better with the human form."

Felipe Polido, who was a senior robotics engineer on WPI's robotics team and now is taking a job working on quadrupeds at the Italian Institute of Technology, said his work on the competition robot, called Warner, has prepared him to work on the Italian robot.

The new robot he'll be focusing on is a 100-pound, high-mobility machine that walks like a dog and can run with different gaits. According to Polido, they're also considering adding two arms to the four-legged robot.

"How do you develop algorithms for these robots to cross tough terrain?" he asked. "I have experience at that now. I would definitely do [the challenge] again. For me, it was a great experience. I got two years of working and doing research with one of the best platforms in the world and some of the best teams in the world. Everybody was working together in the end."

Polido isn't the only one from the Warner team moving on to other jobs.

Two team members are going to work for Uber, while another is going to a research institute in Japan.

Matt DeDonato, who was the WPI team's technical project manager, has taken a job with Qinetiq, a defense contractor that builds robots for the military.

He told Computerworld that he'll likely be working on sensors or robotics at his new job and the work he did in the DARPA competition prepared him for it.

"It's an experience that really changed how I approach problems and it's given me a lot more of a managerial standpoint," he said. "I've gotten a very good knowledge of how systems work and how to bring them together. I can take that knowledge and bring it into the corporate world."

DeDonato also said the work propelled robotics research forward at WPI in general.

"They'll continue with humanoid robotics," he added. "It's really pushed the program in terms of research. It advanced it years. Without the DARPA program, it would have taken another five or so years, at least, to get where we are now."

And the fact that WPI's robot, which the team nicknamed Warner, did not fall over during the DARPA finals gives the university a leg up in its humanoid research.

"In terms of future research and how we move on from here, that's very good for us," DeDonato said. "We obviously do fall; I'm not saying we don't. It's more about how we approach the problem. Even a human falls over."

For Padir, he said he's not only glad they worked on the challenge but he definitely would do it all again - despite the long hours and time it took away from other projects and family.

"The biggest experience was working side-by-side with the world's most renowned roboticists under one big roof for more than a week," he added. "On any given day, most of the top 10 teams were capable of winning the top prize. More than the competition, it was about bringing the community to face this challenge and make things happen. That was the big accomplishment."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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