Japanese robot crushes rivals at DARPA challenge

Researchers advance state of the art in humanoid robot competition

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- A Japanese team dominated its 15 competitors at DARPA's Robotics Challenge in Florida this weekend.

Team Schaft, a Japanese team that built its own two-legged, humanoid robot and the software to run it, garnered 27 points out of a possible 32 at the competition that pitted teams from sich institutions as MIT, NASA, Carnegie Mellon University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute against each other. The competition tested the robots' ability to accomplish eight tasks, including climbing a ladder, driving a car and scrambling over difficult terrain.

The robotics event was sponsored by DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Team Schaft's performance was highlighted by the fact that three of the teams didn't score a single point, including one of the two NASA teams in the contest.

Gill Pratt, a DARPA program manager, said he's not surprised that Team Schaft did so well.

"They started very, very intense efforts immediately after being selected," Pratt told Computerworld. "They had begun and been much more serious about their efforts sooner than anyone else we saw. That's showing this weekend. They did their homework."

IHMC Robotics, a team from the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola, came in second place with 20 points. Rounding out the top five were Tartan Rescue, a team from Carnegie-Mellon University, and the National Robotics Engineering Center, which both had 18 points; the MIT team with 16 points, and RoboSimian, created by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with 14.

Texas-based TracLabs Inc. came in sixth with 11 points. A team from Worcester Polytechnic Institute also had 11 points but came in seventh place because team handlers needed to assist their robot more than the rivals at TracLabs.

Trooper, a team from Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Laboratories, was eighth with nine points.

Sixteen teams competed in the eight tasks in what was the second part of a three-phase competition. The top eight teams are eligible to move on to the next, and last, phase of the challenge. Those top eight teams now will go into contract negotiations with the government and are eligible to receive up to $1 million in research funding.

The third, and final, round will be held late in 2014.

The challenge, which was held Friday and Saturday at the Homestead Miami Speedway in southern Florida, focused on research being done to create robots that one day can help in disaster relief operations.

The teams were given points based on their robots' ability to partially or fully complete the tasks with the least amount of human interaction and in the fastest time. The robots were given 30 minutes to complete each task.

At the 2013 DARPA Robotics Challenge in Homestead, Fla., officials discuss the difficulties of building humanoid robots and what the future holds for rescue-based robots.

The tasks were intended to test the robots' mobility, dexterity, perception and operator control mechanisms.

The goal of the challenge is to push robotics technology to become more autonomous, enabling the machines to make decisions on how best to move around obstacles and how to get to where they need to be.

Near the end of the day on Saturday, Pratt said he was pleased with the progress the researchers have made.

"Things are going extremely well," he said after noting that the challenge is something of a base line for humanoid robotics work. "They are a little bit beyond where I'd expected them to be. The state of the art is better, but only by a little bit."

Pratt also said he was pleased with the stability of the software, seeing few machines malfunction during the challenge.

DARPA officials expected the driving task to pose the toughest challenge. Few teams completed the course, including the Japanese team.

For next year's final challenge, Pratt said instead of facing eight tasks spread out over two days, the teams will face a disaster situation, such as a fire or a gas leak. The robots will be given a set of tools and a series of ladders, doors, cars and valves that they must use to handle the situation.

The next generation of robots also will need to carry their own battery packs, won't be tethered for safety and will have wireless communication systems with their remote controllers.

"The robots will need to work more independently," Pratt said. "I would like to restrain the communications between the robots and the operators. I want to force the teams to add more capability to the robots' computers so they're able to adapt to situations in real time."

Waltham, Mass.-based Boston Dynamics built the Atlas robot, which many of the teams used and then built their own software to run the machine. Other teams built both the hardware and software, but the six-foot, 330-pound humanoid Atlas robot was a key player at the competition.

Joe Bondaryk, project manager with Boston Dynamics, told Computerworld on Friday that the company already is looking to create a next-generation Atlas robot that will be used in the final phase of the challenge.

He said the company plans to makes each of the robot's arms 10 pounds lighter, while possibly adding another wrist joint. The company also is working on a battery that would enable Atlas to work for an hour without being attached to a power source.

This article, Japanese robot crushes rivals at DARPA challenge, 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.

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This story, "Japanese robot crushes rivals at DARPA challenge" was originally published by Computerworld.

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