The DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) has scheduled its first physical trial for late December, leaving competing teams less than six months to finish building and programming their robots. In case you're just tuning in, the DRC is a gauntlet of daunting tasks designed to test robots that may someday stand in for people as first responders. DARPA has just revealed the completed ATLAS humanoid, but there's still a half dozen others that remain somewhat mysterious. Now, Team DRC-HUBO is spilling the beans on its own humanoid robot.

Team DRC-HUBO is one of only a handful of teams that qualified for DARPA funding to build its own robot. This is due in no small part to the participation of HUBO Lab at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), and its spin-off Rainbow Co., which has been building advanced humanoids since 2002 (see the photo gallery). It is supported by nine US institutions that have been working with seven of the lab's HUBO 2 robots since 2009 as part of a US$5 million research initiative funded by the National Science Foundation.

HUBO 2, which was completed in 2008, is comparable to Honda's ASIMO but was built in record time. Though ASIMO took 14 years to develop, KAIST's team matched its performance in just six years and did it at a fraction of the cost. With its combination of high tech and frugality, Rainbow Co. has successfully commercialized the robot as a research platform, with customers in China and Singapore.

Over the past few years HUBO 2 has been steadily enhanced, and even became the third full-sized humanoid robot to technically run (where both feet are in the air for a fraction of a second during the running gait). As you can see in this video, initially the team thought the robot would master the challenge tasks, but at some point it became clear that HUBO 2 (which was never designed for rigorous activity) would need more than a few upgrades.

Building a better robot

In order to meet the needs of the DRC, like driving a utility vehicle or climbing a ladder, the robot has undergone major reconstructive surgery. The result is a new robot called DRC-HUBO, equipped with new arms and legs that sport compliant joints capable of absorbing shocks from external forces. For example, the robot can safely maintain a firm grip on the steering wheel even as a vehicle jostles its body. Without that, the joints in its wrist, elbow, and shoulder could become damaged.

"With a full 34 degrees of freedom (DOF), DRC-HUBO stands 4.7 ft (1.43 m) tall and weighs 120 lbs (54 kg). All in all, the robot has been improved and extensively refurbished from the past models of HUBOs to compete at the DRC Trials. It has better vision and coordination. The legs and arms have become stronger," explains Professor Jun-Ho Oh, the original creator of the HUBO robots.

In addition, the arms have been made much longer, giving the robot an ape-like appearance. This will allow it to switch from bipedal to quadrupedal locomotion and vice versa, meaning it can more easily overcome uneven terrain littered with obstacles. Oddly enough, the robot actually bends over backwards to perform this stunt (and it climbs a ladder facing away from it, too), but hey, whatever works.

DRC-HUBO bends over backwards to crawl on all fours

"Although the robot is still a prototype, it has important capabilities that can be utilized in advancing humanoid robots in general. One example is the way its arms can be used as extra legs to support the robot's body, offering more flexibility in providing aid to humans," says Professor Oh.

This should come in handy, if what we saw in the DARPA Virtual Robotics Challenge (VRC) is any indication. During the VRC, which tested the teams focusing on software development and control of the ATLAS humanoid, several teams resorted to crawling awkwardly along the ground when the robot fell over. It's a technique that other teams are incorporating directly into the design of their robots as well, such as Carnegie Mellon University's CHIMP robot (which has motorized treads on its arms and legs).

Finally, the hands have been upgraded, with the dominant hand having one extra finger for pushing buttons. The hands can hold up to 15 lb (6.8 kg), allowing it to grasp and operate tools and valves during the trial.

The HUBO 2 robot was already a technological marvel, but the DRC-HUBO seems to be a significant step up the evolutionary chain. And with such a huge team to support it, it may end up taking home the DRC's ultimate prize of $2 million.

The following video illustrates how the team envisions DRC-HUBO might be helping with disaster response in the year 2020.

View gallery - 11 images