Robots from around the world are competing in federal challenge in Homestead


Helios, RoboSimian, Buddy and Warner, whose Twitter bio describes them as “tall, dark and humanoid,” are among 17 robots that have come to Homestead-Miami Speedway to attempt tasks that include climbing an industrial ladder and driving a vehicle through an obstacle course.

While the metal machines, and the wood sets that have been built along pit road, all look like they belong in a science fiction movie, this is not a Hollywood production. It’s the Robotics Challenge Trials, brought to you by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The international competition -- for the creation of robots that can respond to natural and man-made disasters-- runs Friday and Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. It’s open to the public and free.

“We hope we get a lot of spectators,” said Gill Pratt, DARPA’s program manager of the robotics competition, which he helped create following the 2011 Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan.

After the earthquake-created tsunami struck the Japanese plant, the backup power systems that are needed to cool the reactors failed. Humans entered the buildings to try to vent the gas that was accumulating inside the reactors, but the high levels of radiation forced them to turn back.

DARPA sent robots that were designed to disarm improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Japan to try to help, Pratt said. But by the time they arrived and the nuclear plant personnel could be taught how to use them, it was too late to prevent the explosions, meltdown and radioactive releases.

And, even if the robots had arrived more timely, they were not technologically advanced enough to perform many of the tasks needed in the chaotic environment.

“It spawned the idea that if robotics are almost good enough to handle these emergencies in real time, can we push the state of the art from inside the lab, where robots are used until now, to out in the field?” Pratt said.

To try to fast track these type of disaster-response robots from concept to reality, the federal government is providing tens of millions of dollars in funding to the best and brightest minds in the field.

“It’s crazy, there are two teams here from NASA,” said Doug Stephen, whose working with the only Florida-based team, IHMC Robotics of Pensacola. “There are some of the biggest universities in robotics: MIT and Carnegie Mellon. It’s really huge and really good. But I think you’ll see us on the leader board.”

Each robot will attempt eight tasks, all critical disaster-response skills: drive and exit utility vehicle, walk across rough terrain, remove debris from doorway, open series of doors, climb industrial ladder, cut through wall using tool, carry and connect fire hose and locate and close leaking valves. Teams get 30 minutes for each task.

Teams can earn up to four points for each task. Pratt said he wouldn’t be surprised if all teams scored less than half of the possible 32 points.

“We’re just at the beginning of this,” Pratt said. “The analysis I like to make is think of a 1-year-old, and I happen to have a 1-year-old. You can’t ask a 1-year-old to go mow your lawn, but they can kind of walk a little bit. They also fall down a lot. They can kind of pick up things. But they drop a lot.”

It’s not like in the movies, where robots make leaping tall buildings look easy. It’s also not like in factories, where robots can work extremely quickly with efficient precision.

Engineers and computer software gurus at this competition say getting a robot to move on its own and to simply open a door with a knob or turn a valve is extremely challenging.

“Most robots in a factory today are bolted to the floor, literally,” said Seth Teller, one of the leaders of MIT’s team. “This thing is built to move its body to where the work has to be done.”

Factory robots work in a perfectly structured environment created by engineers. They are not operating in disaster zones.

MIT’s entry, called Helios, demonstrated how deliberate a robot has to be in the real world. On Wednesday, it practiced walking up and down uneven cinderblocks. Each step was slow, as the robot adjusted to keep its balance.

The movements were being controlled by two operators sitting in front of computers about 20 yards away in one of the garages where NASCAR teams usually set up at the speedway. They could not see the 6-foot Helios, but could see what the humanoid saw through cameras and a lidar sensor that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light.

“The operators will make decisions about where to go next and convey those decisions back to the robot in the form of commands,” Teller said. “The robot will then execute those commands using its own sensors.”

Those sensors include interior ones that can determine angles of joints as well as inertia sensors in its pelvis that can let it know how its body is oriented in space.

“Most factory robots don’t have much perception and blindly repeat the same action over and over again,” Teller said.

Because these robots are in their infancy, Pratt said the teams are allowed to use safety rope belays, like those used by mountain climbers, to prevent the multi-milllion dollar robots from falling and getting damaged. But they cannot be used to support the robots.

For the trials, teams also are using umbilical chords for communication and power. To make the tasks realistic, Pratt said communications between the operator and robot will be degraded every other minute.

Now teams are allowed only as much computing power as they can get with 1000 watts of power, about the amount needed to operate a hair dryer. “The amount of computing power is a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the computing power of the human brain,” Pratt said.

The competition, which was announced in April 2012, began with more than 130 teams from eight countries. They included private businesses large and small, universities and government agencies. Teams could enter with an entire robot, or just the software.

After critical design reviews for the entire robot category, and a simulation competition for the software companies in June, the field was narrowed to 14 teams that would receive continued government funding for these trials. Four other teams are competing with private funding.

Six teams have received $3 million so far to build an entire robot, including the California-based NASA Jet Propulsion Lab. It’s entry is Robosimian, which has four legs like an ape and does not use energy to maintain balance since it almost always has three legs on the ground like a tripod.

While Helios is noise-piercing loud, RoboSimian is extremely quiet, until it is commanded to do a task. “All of a sudden it wakes up and brings the rest of its systems up,” said Brett Kennedy, a principal investigator with the team. “It’s a little errie to see a statue come to life.”

Another seven teams that performed the best in the software simulation are also competing with the hardware of Atlas robots, built by Boston Dynamics and funded by DARPA. In addition to use of the robot, those software-only teams have received up to $1.125 million.

At the end of the trials, eight of the 13 teams that already are receiving government funding will receive $1 million more to use for the finals in December of 2014. But all teams can compete in those finals and be eligible for the grand prize: $2 million.

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