WPI Acquires Humanoid Robot from Boston Dynamics

The Atlas Robot will advance research in WPI’s pioneering robotics engineering program and enable the university to compete on two teams in the national DARPA Robotics Challenge
July 11, 2013

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A Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) robotics team on Thursday announced that it will acquire a $2 million, six-foot humanoid Atlas robot from Boston Dynamics, which it will use to advance research in the university’s pioneering program in Robotics Engineering.

WPI earned the right to use the Atlas robot, described by Boston Dynamics as “…a high mobility, humanoid robot designed to negotiate outdoor, rough terrain,” after placing second among the top seven teams in a recent Virtual Robotics Challenge, part of an overall robotics challenge sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) aims to create a new generation of advanced humanoid robots that can do jobs too hazardous for humans, such as responding to natural and manmade disasters.

Atlas will now be used by the WPI team that competed in the Virtual Robotics Challenge as it prepares for the next phase of the DRC, which will take place Dec. 20 and 21 2013 at Homestead Miami Speedway in Homestead Fla. This phase will pit a host of teams from industry and academia – including another team that includes researchers from WPI – in a competition aimed at accelerating the development of high-functioning humanoid robots.

Michael Gennert, professor of computer science and director of WPI’s Robotics Engineering Program, said WPI’s acquisition of Atlas will have significant implications.

“Atlas is an extremely powerful tool that will advance our research capabilities,” he said. “It lets us verify that algorithms we developed for simulation work in the real world, or fix them when they don’t. Simulation only gets you so far; the real world is a dirty, messy, noisy, unpredictable place where the unexpected can and does happen.”

Gennert also noted that the addition of Atlas to the university’s collection of impressive research robots adds to WPI’s widening recognition for expertise in this emerging field. “Besides getting noticed by academic and industrial researchers, we are getting requests to collaborate in research as a direct result,” he said.

WPI researchers are part of another team that will compete in the Robotics Challenge. That team, led by Dr. Paul Oh at Drexel University, also includes faculty and students from Columbia University, the University of Delaware, Georgia Tech, Indiana University, Ohio State, Purdue, Swarthmore, and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. WPI's team members are led by Dmitry Berenson, assistant professor of computer science and robotics engineering.

“We’re hoping that both WPI teams advance to the next phase of the DRC,” said Gennert. “The two teams are totally distinct, but we do share some things: A passion for advancing the frontiers of engineering and science through robotics and a burning desire to win the DRC.”

The overall challenge has four tracks. Teams in tracks A and D will develop robots and software; teams in the A track–including the Drexel-led team–could receive up to $3 million in DARPA funding to support their work.

Teams in tracks B and C competed in the recent Virtual Robotics Competition; the B teams were funded by DARPA, while the C teams–including the WPI team that is acquiring the Atlas robot and is being led by WPI PhD candidate R.J. Linton–provided their own funds.

For this next phase of the DRC trials taking place in December, teams across all tracks will program actual humanoid robots to complete a sequence of events required to address a simulated disaster.

The robots must address a number of tasks mandated by DARPA. They will be required to drive a utility vehicle at the site, travel dismounted across rubble, remove debris blocking an entryway, open a door and enter a building, and climb an industrial ladder and traverse an industrial walkway. The robots must then use a tool to break through a concrete panel, locate and close a valve near a leaking pipe, and replace a component such as a cooling pump.

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