Pensacola, FL – A team from the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) took first place in the initial stage of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, topping a roster of 26 of the top robotics research groups in the world.
IHMC’s team scored 52 out of a possible 60 points in the DARPA Virtual Robotics Challenge, a computer simulation using software that will power a real-life humanoid robot in the future. Members of the top nine teams in the scoring will move on to the next competition, with the top six getting funding from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and provision of a humanoid robot, built by Boston Dynamics, for the next stage of the two-year competition, which is almost halfway completed.
The next competition, using actual robots, is scheduled for December 2013. The final challenge is set for December 2014, with $2 million in prize money at stake.
DARPA’s goal is to develop technology allowing the use of advanced humanoid robots at disaster sites, such as the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan in 2011, where human action is limited. The robots must be able to work in a human-oriented environment, and be supervised by people with little training in robotics.
According to DARPA, existing robots are highly specialized and very limited in their abilities; success “would mark a significant leap forward for the field of robotics.”
In its showing, the IHMC team finished ahead of a field of teams from universities, government agencies and private companies in the United States and overseas. U.S. competitors included teams from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lockheed Martin, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and Caltech, as well as teams from Spain, Japan, Britain, Mexico, Israel, Brazil and Poland.
IHMC fielded a 22-member team led by Research Scientist Jerry Pratt and Research Associate Matt Johnson.
“This is a big win for IHMC,” said institute co-founder and CEO Ken Ford. “Our team was up against some of the best and brightest robotics scientists and institutions in the world, and came out on top. We’re very proud of the team.
“This sort of recognition can only be earned by performing at a very high level, and that’s what our team did.”
The Virtual Robotics Challenge required controlling a humanoid robot in a computer simulation to complete three tasks that could face a robot at a disaster site:
1) Get into a small vehicle, drive it to a specific location, and get out;
2) Walk across progressively more difficult terrain, including flat ground, a knee-deep mud pit, low hills and a debris field littered with cinder blocks;
3) Pick up a hose from a table, connect it to a spigot, and turn the valve on.
The competition was spread over three days earlier this month. The teams did 5 simulation “runs” on each task, with slight changes in the details, such as the height of hills or how the debris was spread out.
Multiple IHMC team members participated in the various challenges. For instance, Dr. Pratt said, 12 different people helped control the robot during the various trials. “It took four of us to drive the car,” he said. Problems had to be fixed before the next run, a reality that led to “all-nighters” to rewrite software.
Despite some early problems—the team’s robot fell several times, and had trouble at first driving the vehicle—IHMC’s team quickly mastered the challenges. The researchers had come into the competition with particular expertise in bipedal walking, said Dr. Pratt.
“Walking has been our strength, but we have learned a lot,” he said. “We did really well on the hose task. And we do well at human-machine interfaces. Any time we add autonomy to the robot, we make sure the human can interact in a positive way. The human knows what the robot is doing, why, and how you can modify what it is doing.”
IHMC is scheduled to receive the actual robot—named Atlas—in July for development work leading to the next competition in December.
“This stage was all simulation,” Dr. Pratt said. “We’re ready to use a real robot. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”