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The Next Generation - Putting Your Best Robot Forward

By Carl Weiss
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I don’t know about you, but I grew up watching all the cool and scary science fiction movies featuring all kind of fantastic things especially and killer monster robots that were ready to take over the world. Companies around the world are furiously work hard to bring robots to life, (not the killer kind but their more benign helpful counter parts). We have been using industrial robots for the better part of 20 years now but none of these robots have been the walking talking, come along with me and do this job for me kind. Well robots are getting ready to take the next step in their evolution. I am talking about the walking, talking, climbing, and looking more like people kind. In this article, we will explore the next level of robot evolution. So read on and meet our 21st century robotic contestants.

English: This was the most up-to-date DARPA lo...
 DARPA logo as of January 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
You may have missed this item in the news recently, but on December 20 sixteen teams duked it out at the DARPA Robotics Challenge for a chance to win $2 million.  Sporting monikers like RoboSimian, Valkerie and Atlas, these aren’t your daddy’s droids.  These robots walked like a human and were required to perform a number of tasks such as driving a vehicle, climbing a ladder, open doors and turn valves.  While not able to replace a real firefighter as of yet, the competition was clearly designed to raise the bar in order to eventually create a rescue robot that could be sent into harm’s way in situations where humans fear to tread.  (Imagine how useful these bots could have been had they been available in Fukushima during the tsunami and reactor disaster.)

Not that you’d mistake these bots for your typical rescue worker.  Looking more like a Tinkertoy than the Terminator, Schaft (recently acquired by Google), took first place in the competition, resembles a boom box sprouting arms and legs.  Standing 4 feet, 8 inches tall and weighing in at 209 pounds, it's unlikely to win any beauty contests.  However, what it lacks in looks it more than makes up for in utility, if its performance at the DARPA competition is any indication. 

Robot Requirements

To begin with, all the robotic competitors were required to be able to drive a rescue vehicle and navigate their way around a series of objects.  Just as with most emergency situations that could require the services of a rescue robot, you can’t always assume that the site will be pristine.  Whether induced by tornado, hurricane, earth tremor or act of war, being able to negotiate a rubble-filled roadway is job number one for any would be rescuer.   When disaster strikes what is required is a robot that can think on its feet.

While many people are familiar with bomb disposal bots being used in Iran and Afghanistan, most of these are operated by telepresence, which necessitates that a human be at the controls.  While this kind of operational environment works in ordinance disposal, in the kinds of environments that rescue robots would be sent into clear, the need for autonomous operation is imperative. In first place, ordinance disposal droids are typically tracked and are usually limited to one articulated limb.  n first place, ordinance disposal droids are typically tracked and are usually limited to one articulated limb.  Rescue robots on the other hand are fully articulated and are  required to perform tasks that would be difficult to accomplish in a telepresence-only mode.   Secondly, in high radiation areas, relying on remote controlled robots could prove difficult, since radio interference would be almost a certainty.

To make the competition more like a real disaster area, DARPA broke the playing field into eight pirmary tasks: Driving a Vehicle, Handling Rough Terrain, Climbing a Ladder, Clearing Debris, Opening Doors, Cutting Through a Wall, Opening a Valve & Using a Hose.  I know several humans that would have a tough time carrying out all of these tasks.  For semi-autonomous robots, the task was daunting, which is what separated the bots from the boys in the recent competition in Miami.

And the Winner Is?

Of the 16 teams entered into December’s competition, only seven scored in the double digits. Several competitors such as NASA’s Valkerie failed to score even a single point, which shows how difficult the tasks were to accomplish.  Kind of like an Olympics for robots, the winners will advance on to the finals which are going to be held in the next 12-18 months.  Even those who did not make the cut will be able to learn from their mistakes as well as from more successful competitors. 
  • Team SCHAFT (SCHAFT Inc.): 27 points
  • Team IHMC Robotics (Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition): 20 points
  • Team Tartan Rescue (Carnegie Mellon University and National Robotics Engineering Center): 18 points
  • Team MIT (MIT): 16 points
  • Team RoboSimian (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory): 14 points
  • Team TRACLabs (TRACLabs, Inc.): 11 points
  • Team WRECS (Worcester Polytechnic Institute): 11 points

For those who couldn’t make the trip to Miami to see the competition live, fear not, because you can find the replay on YouTube. While the video shows the robots going through their paces, don’t expect to see the kind of performance that we have all come to know and love in Star Wars.  While some of the robots were able to score points while performing one or more of their assigned tasks, they did them with all the rapidity of a Galapagos tortoise.  That doesn’t mean that rescue robots are something only likely to save someone on the big screen.  What it means is that like aerial drones and autonomous vehicles, while these automatons are not yet ready for prime time, within several years these robots could be coming to a disaster area near you.  Until then it’s up to the ingenuity and persistence of robotics engineers to keep putting their best bot forward.

In this article, I covered the DARPA Robotics Challenge, which features the state of the art, for robots from around the world. I have described their strengths, weakness and the capabilities of these next generation robots. From this description, you can see where we are heading with respect to their usage.  If you liked this article, share it with your friends and co-workers. If you have a comment related to this article, enter it in the section below. I look forward to our next visit. Until next time! 

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Thanks for sharing your time with me.

Since 1995, Carl Weiss has been helping clients succeed online.  He owns and operates several online marketing businesses, including Working the Web to Win and Jacksonville Video Production. He also co-hosts the weekly radio show, "Working the Web to Win," every Tuesday at 4 p.m. Eastern on

1 comment:

  1. If you don't think that robotics is going to be the next big thing consider the fact that Google recently acquired 8 robotics companies.