The DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) is a two-year Pentagon-funded competition which pushes the contestants to design the most humanistic robots possible. The aim of the challenge is to develop robots that will be able to perform human-like functions in environments and conditions that are not suitable or safe for human beings. The first physical trials were held on the 20th of December at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida. The trials consisted of a series of eight tasks which included an obstacle course and various other challenges. Here is a look at some of the contenders of the DRC.
1. THOR and THOR-OP
These two bots belong to the same team with THOR being the taller and more capable of the pair. THOR (Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot) is the closest to simulating human stability and musculature. This stable movement is due to THOR’s series of elastic actuators which give it a bouncing gait. However, THOR was declared unready for the competition this year and so THOR-OP (Open Platform) was used in place of it’s big brother. With a smaller height and a more Asimo-like movement, THOR-OP isn’t as able as THOR, but still competent enough to perform most of the tasks at the trials (such as opening doors, turning valves, etc.). THOR-OP will only be carrying the team for this year’s trials as THOR will be brought back into action in 2014.
The team at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is familiar to DARPA’s challenges. They won the the 2007 Urban Challenge with an autonomous pickup truck. The team has developed a 400-pound humanoid that resembles an ape more than a human due to its disproportionately long arms (10 feet when opened completely). The robot has tank treads attached to each limb to help it cover longer distances, so it doesn’t have to worry about balancing itself. When standing, CHIMP has a total height of 5′ 2″. CHIMP also uses 3-D mapping instead of a live feed camera to provide the controllers with feedback.
This creation was submitted by NASA and developed by the Johnson Space Center. The robot stands 6′ 2″ tall and has a fabric enclosed frame. The defining feature of the Valkyrie, however, is not the external looks but the large variety of cameras placed all over the robots frame including head, torso, feet, knees and arms. Valkyrie had an edge at the trials this week due to JSC’s experience with robots such as Robonaut and Robonaut 2.
The second entry by NASA was created by Jet Propulsion’s Lab and looks the least like a humanoid. In fact, the RoboSimian doesn’t look like any biological creature. The creators say that the robot does have an ape-like profile but other than that, the lack of a head or face or any distinct standing position make the RoboSimian stand out from the other robots at the DRC. The robot’s four limbs have a large number of joints which give it an incredible amount of mobility, even allowing the limbs to fold into themselves. The body has cameras at different angles so that it can scuttle around without having to turn around. This incredible mobility is sure to give the RoboSimian an advantage in certain tasks at the trials.
Hubo is probably the lightest of the robots at the DRC. The robot has the size and strength of a 10-year old boy and it’s weight of 130 pounds makes it easy for it to be carried by a human to the place where it is to be used. This gives Hubo a real world advantage. Besides this, the team that developed Hubo has a few replacements to take over in case one of the robots breaks down or malfunctions. The DRC-Hubo is a foot taller than its predecessor and 20 percent heavier, but it’s still lightweight and mobile enough to perform the tasks at the trials. The stalk-like head does look slightly scary but it gives Hubo an elevated view and greater visibility.
6. HRP-2-Based Robot
This mysterious robot built by the Japan-based team, Schaft, Inc. doesn’t even have a name yet. This robot is the one to beat at the DRC as all other teams say that it will be able to complete the mobility-based tasks with relative ease. The water-cooled motors powered by fast discharge batteries give the robot great amounts of power on demand. The roboticists of the University of Tokyo have recorded their robots performance around the lab and it is quite impressive in terms of mobility. One point of interest which is irrelevant to the robot itself is the fact that Schaft, Inc. was acquired by Google this year, which only makes this team a greater competitor in the DRC.
All of the previous teams were Track A teams and built both the hardware and software for the DRC. The Track B participants which will develop only the software, were provided with their own robots – the Atlas robot by Boston Dynamics. The robot does have a reputation for tripping due to its lack of stability. The recent acquisition of Boston Dynamics by Google has just made the DRC slightly more interesting. The last time Google swooped in on a DARPA competition, the internet giant ended up creating its own driverless car. This time around Google’s participation could create the humanoids we’ve seen in movies for so many years or it could delay the process to next year’s rounds in December 2014.