This week, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) will compete in the most demanding robotics challenge in the world: the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), to be held at the Fairplex in Pomona, Calif., June 5-6.
DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, is responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military. The DRC is an international competition aimed at creating a robot that can assist people in responding to disasters.
Twenty-four teams from around the globe will maneuver highly specialized robots in eight tasks that will test their mobility and manipulation skills and demonstrate the ability of robots to manage in uncontrolled and unpredictable situations, often without human direction.
"DARPA has issued a remarkably complex and difficult challenge, but it's one that speaks to the ethos that WPI Robotics was built upon," said WPI President Laurie Leshin. "Our roboticists constantly strive to create robots that will make the world a better place for human beings. Two years ago, it seemed impossible that a robot would be able to perform the tasks that DARPA laid out, but I can tell you that Team WPI-CMU and WARNER are ready to take the field with confidence. I am so proud of them, and I am excited to watch their hard work play out."
Team WPI-CMU is made up of faculty and students from WPI and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and centers on WARNER (WPI’s Atlas Robot for Nonconventional Emergency Response), a six-foot-two humanoid Atlas robot made by Boston Dynamics that has been programmed by the team to be able to turn a valve, climb a ladder, drive a vehicle, and perform other tasks put forth by DARPA.
Team WPI-CMU has performed well in prior competitions. It was one of 11 teams that originally qualified to move on to the finals after the DRC trials in December 2013. More recently, DARPA expanded the challenge and accepted an additional 14 teams hailing from the United States, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, and South Korea. These teams will now compete to win one of the three prizes: $2 million for first place, $1 million for second place, and $500,000 for third place.
DARPA has increased the difficulty level of the finals. In particular, robots can no longer be connected to power cords or wired communications tethers. Thus, Boston Dynamics built “Atlas Unplugged” in a three-month overhaul that included installation of a lithium-ion battery pack and other upgrades. Seven of the 24 teams competing in the finals are using the redesigned Atlas robots; in addition, will be a variety of other commercial and custom physical robot forms in use at the competition, according to DARPA.
"Going wireless has been both beneficial and challenging," noted Team WPI-CMU co-leader Matt DeDonato. "Although eliminating cables gives WARNER a greater range of motion, the wireless router connection is considerably slower. Plus, WARNER's battery pack provides about 45 minutes of power, and all tasks in the DRC must be completed within one hour, so we have to be highly strategic with our time. Still, we are in a great position as we take the field, and we’re excited to show what we’ve been able to accomplish with this robot."
In an effort to make the situation on the field more like a real-life disaster situation, DARPA also plans to periodically interrupt wireless communication channels during the competition, thereby forcing the robots to carry on without direction from their human teams. Although teams have been able to practice most of the tasks they are likely to face, DARPA is expected to present surprise tasks, further testing the robots’ and teams’ abilities.
According to DARPA, technologies resulting from the challenge "will transform the field of robotics and catapult forward development of robots featuring task-level autonomy that can operate in the hazardous, degraded conditions common in disaster zones."
"Regardless of the outcome on June 6, competing in the DRC has been a tremendously positive experience because it not only allowed TEAM WPI-CMU to collaborate and overcome obstacles that were extremely difficult, but it built an even larger community of roboticists who are now focusing their abilities and their lessons learned to create robots that will eventually help humans in man-made and natural disasters," said Taskin Padir, assistant professor of electrical engineering and robotics engineering at WPI and co-leader of Team WPI-CMU.
"We have thoroughly enjoyed collaborating with our team members at CMU, and contributing to the knowledge base to meet the challenge posed by DARPA. It feels good to be part of a community that will eventually drive the innovations that will make these robots practical and ready for real-life situations."
The DARPA Robotics Challenge is open to the public.