Backstage with the world's most advanced robots
We've looked closely at the on track action at the recent 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge, but there's a lot more to the story. Gizmag went behind the scenes to explore the "garage" where the teams tended their sophisticated charges in order to learn more about what makes the world's most advanced robots tick.
The 2015 DRC Final brought teams together from all over the world as part of DARPA project to produce robots that could help responders in the event of disasters, such nuclear accidents. Last week at Fairplex in Pomona, California, about 10,000 people watched them take on a series of tasks from driving a car to operating a switch with varying degrees of success punctuated by falls that went viral on the Internet.
However, behind every great robot is a team of roboticists – in this case, linked to their charges from control centers in a garage a quarter of a mile away by a deliberately degraded communications system. Off limits to the public, this re-purposed exhibition hall also acted as workshop and de facto home for the engineers and their automata.
The open plan was both practical, since ATVs had to be able to drive in to collect the robots to take to the competition area, and symbolic of the purpose of the DRC to encourage collaboration and communications between the international teams. That may seem a bit odd, since DARPA is a defense agency that routinely handles classified research, but program manager Gill Pratt told us that disasters are common to all, so, unlike other projects, the DRC had no obvious security concerns.
The robots in the competition broke down into several categories. Most were humanoid, some were non-humanoid, and a few were hybrids. Though many of the robots were custom built by their teams, some opted for the Atlas robot built by Boston Dynamics that provided as a common platform for the competition. Because of the Atlas, the garage actually held 25 teams; the 24 competitors plus a Boston Dynamics team to provide technical support and a spare Atlas in case a "transplant" was needed.
In all, the atmosphere throughout the competition was excited, collegiate, and about what you'd expect in a crowd of young, motivated engineers doing something unprecedented, yet under the heavy pressure of time restraints. Some were totally concentrated on the task at hand, some were keen to chat with us, and a few stood with long faces over robots that simply failed to function properly.
As we talked with some of the teams, the competition was still ongoing and we were reminded that the teams in the garage weren't just doing maintenance on their robots there – they were controlling them as well. Under the rules of the competition, each team had to control its robot from the garage using a degraded communications link that restricted bandwidth, introduced latency, and occasionally interrupted transmissions. Because of this, each team had to devise a control software that took this into account, as well as programming the robot with a high degree of autonomy. Every now and again we'd hear how well this worked as a team would let out cheers or groans, depending on the outcome.
One robot we found of particular interest was Team Grit's Cog Burn. This quadruped robot built on a shoestring budget in less than two months by a volunteer team led by Karl Castelton was one of the early casualties of the competition. On day one it failed to complete the first task when it was unable to walk across sand, though team member Chris Williams says that it wasn't the sand that defeated it, but software, which had plagued the robot's development for weeks.
"We're using arduinos to control all our individual motors," says Williams. "We have three joints per leg, which means 12 arduino controllers. We're using I-squared-C to communicate between them and we're having I-squared-C issues. It's a local networking problem."
When asked about the atmosphere between the teams, Williams said: "It's very light… We're not competing against one another, we're competing against ourselves."
"The hardest part about that is the degraded communications," said Seminatore. "It's not immediately obvious to the audience, but the operator station can't tell the robot to operate because there's so much latency, so the real challenge is to have enough tools at your disposal, such as pre-planned motions, so that the robot can adapt to what's going on."
Despite the fall setback, Seminatore regards ESCHER as a success because the team was concentrating on getting the robot to walk 200 ft (61 m) instead of doing the drive task and managed it on the second day of the competition. ESCHER will be used in Virginia Tech's next phase of its firefighting robot project.
The final scores in the 2015 DRC Finals saw Team KAIST taking the US$2 million first prize with 8 points and a time of 44:28. Second was Team IHMC Robotics's Running Man robot with 8 points and a time of 50:26. Tartan Rescue's Chimp, which won the first day of competition, came third with 8 points and a time of 55:15.For more information, visit the