WPI Robotics Team Finishes in Seventh Place in National Competition

Team excels in five mobility and motion tasks and secures “Best in Task Vehicle Award”; Squad has chance to move on to DARPA DRC Finals in 2014
December 22, 2013

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Worcester Polytechnic Institute's (WPI) WARNER humanoid robot excelled in five mobility and manipulation tasks at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge (DRC) Trials at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla., earning a strong seventh-place showing.

WARNER (WPI's Atlas Robot for Nonconventional Emergency Response) earned 11 points in the competition, which pitted 16 robotics teams from around the world against each other with an eye toward paving the way for humanoid robots that can help respond to man-made and natural disasters. DARPA officials say the DRC was created after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, in March 2011, which created an environment that was too hazardous for people to enter.

The robots were charged with completing eight specific autonomous and semi-autonomous tasks mandated by DARPA, ranging from clearing debris to climbing a ladder. Teams were awarded a maximum of four points for each task for a total potential of 32 points.

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On Saturday, WARNER, standing 6'2" and weighing 330 pounds, wowed the crowd by driving a Polaris Ranger XP 900 a distance of 250 feet in just six minutes, the fastest time of any team. As a result of the strong finish, WPI's team received the "Best in Task Vehicle Award" during the awards ceremony following the event.

"The driving task was one of the most demanding from a testing standpoint, and our team really did an outstanding job," said Matt DeDonato, leader of WPI's Team WRECS squad. "We couldn’t be happier for the effort the team put forth on that task and throughout the competition."

Gill Pratt, DRC program manager, said the government will now enter into contract negotiations with the top eight teams –including WPI's– to fund them for next year for the DARPA Robotics Finals in December 2014. "Assuming those contract negotiations are successful and funds are available, those would be the eight that move forward," said Pratt during the closing ceremony.

DeDonato attributed the driving to strong testing and simulation during the earlier Virtual Robotics Challenge. The driving task was considered key as first responders need to program robots to first get to a disaster scene before they embark on other tasks.

Also on Saturday, WARNER, participated in two additional mobility tasks, earning two points for climbing a ladder and two points for traversing terrain covered with cinderblocks.

SCHAFT, based in Japan, finished in first place with 27 points, followed by IHMC Robotics with 20 points, Tartan Rescue (18 points), MIT (16 points), RoboSimian (14 points), and Team TRACLabs (11 points). Although WPI tied with Team TRACLabs, the WPI squad finished one place after them because WARNER required more human interventions during the tasks.

DRC-HUBO, a Drexel-led team that included three WPI robotics professors and several WPI students, finished with three points.

On Friday, the first day of the DRC Trials, WARNER got off to a fast start on several motion tasks. WARNER kicked the day off by grasping a hose and passing a designated yellow line. The team secured two points for the task.

On the second task on Friday, WARNER successfully turned three valves, securing four additional points. The team spent a good portion of the morning hours in first place, earning cheers from the crowd and organizers.

Later in the morning, WARNER ran into a bit of trouble with tasks involving drilling a wall and opening a door. In the first task, DeDonato said the team encountered some unexpected challenges with the code that caused WARNER to fall. The team tried to make up for lost time and WARNER actually started cutting into a wall with a cordless power drill but time had expired.

In the next task, WARNER was tasked with opening and walking through three doors. While WARNER managed to open the first door on at least two occasions, gusty winds kept shutting the door and prevented the robot from advancing. "In the door task we faced some wind that we hadn’t anticipated," said DeDonato.

On the final task of the first day, WARNER had to remove debris consisting of four-by-four plywood and a metal truss. Although WARNER did not score any points on the task, DeDonato praised his team for shifting software strategy a couple of weeks ago that enabled the robot to perform the task more quickly. “That was one of the best things I've seen from the team yet,” said DeDonato.

And now, the team couldn’t be more pleased to have the chance to advance to the next level.

"The team is thrilled with the finish, and we’re looking forward to continuing to train WARNER for the next competition," said DeDonato. "It's been quite a ride for everyone, and I'm confident that we're up for this next challenge."

• Follow WARNER on Twitter: @WPI_WARNER.