Autonomous Humanoid Robots - Not Quite But Getting Closer Originally appeared in Nextbot

Can we expect to see autonomous humanoid robots climbing through rubble after an earthquake looking for humans trapped in buildings any time soon? Or perhaps robots will be sent to shut down a nuclear power plant after after a tragic melt down?

Those are questions the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Finals held in Pomona, Calif. June 5-6 was hoping to answer. The DRC was in response to a humanitarian need that became apparent during the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan, in 2011.

The DRC stated goal is “to accelerate progress in robotics and hasten the day when robots have sufficient dexterity and robustness to enter areas too dangerous for humans and mitigate the impacts of natural or man-made disasters.”

The two-day Challenge Finals was the third competition in a series of increasingly difficult challenges that took place over two years. There were twelve teams from the U.S. and eleven teams from Japan, Germany, Italy, Republic of Korea and Hong Kong competing in the Finals. Each team had to complete eight tasks that are common when responding to a disaster.

Since the point of this challenge is to send robots into areas that are too dangerous for humans, the robots in the challenge had to carry out their mission with no human assistance on the demonstration site. That meant the challenge started with the robot driving itself to the site and getting out of the vehicle on its own.

Next the robot had to open a door to enter the mock-up disaster site where it proceeded to several more tasks. Those tasks included turning a valve, drilling a hole in a wall, tripping a circuit breaker, climbing stairs and walking through rubble.

The robots were unassisted on the site itself, but controlled by humans stationed in a garage across the Fairplex grounds. The controllers could only see what the robot could see. Just to make things more realistic, DRC organizers would disrupt wireless communications for up to a minute at a time. After all, you cannot count on communication systems working flawlessly in a disaster.

As a result, the competition is not exactly action packed. You can sit for ten minutes waiting for a robot to make even the slightest attempt at a task. Depending on your level of robotic interest, it was either wildly exciting or incredibly boring. Most of the crowd appeared to lean toward the wildly exciting camp.

The winning team, Team Kaist from South Korea, scored a perfect 8 points in just 44 minutes and 28 seconds giving them the $2 million first-place prize money.

During a workshop on Sunday after the competition, Professor Jun Ho Oh, team leader, shared the secrets to their success. One of their many secrets was the amount of time they practiced with their robot, DRC-Hubo.

While other teams ran simulations on the computer or practiced with safety cables attached to their robots to prevent them from being damaged, Team Kaist was doing outdoor runs without the assistance of cables. They even did those runs in heavy sunlight and high winds. He wanted to instill confidence in his team. “If we don’t remove safety, operators are too fearful,” said Oh.

And confident they were. Oh said that their test situation was more difficult than what they found at the Challenge. He was disappointed the terrain was not more difficult to maneuver, and the debris was effortless to clear. Oh said that it was a pity they could not show off their robots walking ability more. "It was too easy!” laughed Oh.

Team IHMC Robotics of Pensacola, Fla. and their robot Running Man, came in second and took home the $1 million prize. Team IHMC was also honored with the Seth Teller Memorial Recognition for Contributions to the Community along with Team MIT.

Jerry Pratt, team IHMC leader, said that IHMC is an open team, and they believe in sharing their discoveries. They felt their real competitors were the door, the drill, the valves and the stairs, not the other teams. Pratt announced they would be open sourcing their software in the spirit of collaboration and sharing.

The third place finisher, earning the $500,000 prize, was Tartan Rescue of Carnegie University, and their robot CHIMP. While human in form, CHIMP rolls around either upright or on all fours like a tank.

CHIMP and team Tartan Rescue entertained the crowd with one of the most exciting moments of the competition. It happened as CHIMP was preparing to go through the doorway. While getting down on all fours to roll across the threshold, it toppled over onto its side. Unlike other teams’ response to a fallen comrade, no one on Tartan Rescue ran to help.

Help was not needed because CHIMP was built to right itself.

Remote operators flipped CHIMP onto its belly and from there it autonomously got itself set to rights which is how it should be. After all, the whole point of this competition is that robots will have to fix their mistakes without any human physical intervention.

While the competition proved we are not quite ready to successfully deploy these robots today, we are inching our way closer. The DRC gave researchers and roboticists a good look at what’s working and what needs to be improved so they can continue to build a robot that can be depended on when called to assist in a disaster.

Traci Browne is a freelance writer specializing in manufacturing, engineering and science. You can find out more about her at www.TraciBrowne.com.

Photo Credit: Traci Browne

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