Boston Dynamics' ATLAS robot (Credit: Darpa)

Disaster response robot meets its coaches

The US has unveiled a humanoid robot with seven teams now competing to teach it how to respond to a disaster scenario.

The winners of the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Virtual Robotics Challenge (VRC) have been introduced to their new robotic teammate ATLAS, built by Boston Dynamics.

ATLAS is one of the most advanced humanoid robots ever built, but is essentially a physical shell for the software brains and nerves that the seven teams will continue to develop and refine.

The teams, who met ATLAS on Monday, now have until late December 2013 to teach ATLAS the moves it will need to succeed in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Trials where several different robots will have to perform a series of tasks similar to what might be required in a disaster response scenario.

“The Virtual Robotics Challenge was a proving ground for teams’ ability to create software to control a robot in a hypothetical scenario. The DRC Simulator tasks were fairly accurate representations of real world causes and effects, but the experience wasn’t quite the same as handling an actual, physical robot,” said Gill Pratt, program manager for the DARPA Robotics Challenge.

“Now these seven teams will see if their simulation-honed algorithms can run a real machine in real environments. And we expect all teams will be further refining their algorithms, using both simulation and experimentation.”

Thanks to the physical modelling of the DRC Simulator, the software algorithms that were successfully employed by teams in the VRC should transfer with minor tuning to the ATLAS hardware.

The software the teams are developing, and the actions of a human operator through a control unit, will guide the suite of sensors, actuators, joints and limbs that make up the robot.

The 6ft 2in, 330lb ATLAS is capable of a range of natural movements and is equipped with an on-board real-time control computer; hydraulic pump and thermal management; two arms, two legs, a torso and a head; 28 hydraulically actuated joints; a Carnegie Robotics sensor head with LIDAR and stereo sensors; and two sets of hands, one provided by iRobot and one by Sandia National Labs.

In addition to the robot, the winning teams from the VRC will receive funding from DARPA and on-going technical support from Boston Dynamics.

In June, the DRC programme management staff also visited the seven Track A teams, those funded to build both hardware and software, to evaluate their platform design-and-build progress.

The teams presented the details of their designs, hardware components, operator control strategies and, in some cases, completed robots.

The Carnegie Mellon University National Robotics Engineering Center, Drexel University, Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Nasa Johnson Space Center, SCHAFT Inc and Virginia Tech have been selected to advance to the DRC Trials with continued DARPA funding.

“We have dramatically raised the expectations for robotic capabilities with this Challenge, and brought together a diverse group of teams to compete,” said Pratt.

“The progress the Track A teams have made so far is incredible given the short timeline DARPA put in place. From here out, it’s going to be a race to the DRC Trials in December, and success there just means the qualifying teams will have to keep on sprinting to the finish at the DRC Finals in 2014.”

The six Track A teams, seven VRC winning teams and an unknown number of unfunded, Track D teams and their robots will compete for the first time in December 2013 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida, site of the DRC Trials.

The competition will be a spectator event open to the public.

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