A Rensselaer team will play a key role in determining how robots can help respond to man-made and natural disasters. The team has qualified for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge and will compete December 20 and 21 in trials that will test the capabilities of human-sized semi-autonomous robots.

Teams will be judged on how well their robots complete tasks that test mobility, manipulation, dexterity, perception, and operator control mechanisms. Examples include driving and exiting a vehicle, walking across rocky terrain, climbing a ladder, removing debris, opening and traveling through doors, using a drill to cut a hole in a wall, closing valves, and unraveling and attaching a hose.


Rensselaer teams with Lockheed Martin and University of Pennsylvania for DARPA Robotics Challenge

“The DARPA challenge shifts the emphasis of robot technology to autonomy and designing robots that can work together with humans to leverage each other’s strengths,” said Jeff Trinkle, computer science professor and director of the Rensselaer Computer Science Department Robotics Lab. “Our team’s technical approach exploits the incomparable spatial perception abilities of humans through a unique tele-operation interface, while taking advantage of the robot’s strength to move debris and use tools. There are indications that future challenges will require teams of humans and robots to work together in tight spaces.”

Trinkle and four others from the lab—doctoral students Jun Dong, Shuai Li, and Jedediyah Williams, and post-doctoral researcher and visiting scholar Daniel Montrallo Flickinger—are members of the TROOPER team, a partnership of Rensselaer, Lockheed Martin, and the University of Pennsylvania. The team is one of 17 from around the globe to earn a place in the DARPA challenge trials, which will be held at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.

Technology developed for the challenge is expected to help transform the field of robotics. The goal is to speed the development of robots that have task-level autonomy, can operate in hazardous conditions, and are capable of adapting to unpredictable circumstances.


Daniel Montrallo Flickinger with team TROOPER’s Atlas humanoid

DARPA announced the competition in April 2012, challenging the world’s most advanced robotics research and development organizations to help design and build robots that could aid in the response to disasters such as the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. Teams could participate in two ways: by developing their own robot and control software, or by focusing exclusively on developing software. More than 100 teams entered.

TROOPER chose the software-only option and, in June, competed in the pre-qualification Virtual Robotics Challenge to showcase the team’s software and its ability to guide a simulated robot through disaster-related tasks. TROOPER’s software solution controls a robot in a state of “supervised autonomy.” With this approach, the robot can complete simple tasks independently. For more complicated tasks, an operator assists the robot remotely.

TROOPER placed among the top nine teams in the pre-qualifying round, earning a berth in next week’s competition—and an Atlas humanoid, developed by Boston Dynamics. The nine Atlas teams will compete against one another and against eight teams that will use custom-designed robots.

The Atlas humanoid is 6 feet 2 inches tall, weighs 330 pounds, and has a torso and two arms, hands, legs, and feet. The robot has 28 degrees of freedom in its basic skeleton, and articulated, sensate hands that can manipulate tools designed for human use. Its articulated sensor head is equipped with stereo cameras and a laser range finder.

Despite its advanced features, Atlas’ capabilities pale in comparison with those of humans. “The robot looks cool—a lot like Terminator,” Dong said, “yet it struggles to perform even the simplest human task. It can take weeks to get the robot to make the desired motion. But when that day comes, it’s fantastic.”

The Rensselaer team’s primary focus has been on writing software to manipulate Atlas’ arms and hands. The vast majority of the team’s work has been done remotely. In fact, some team members will see Atlas in action for the first time during next week’s challenge.

Flickinger, who is the principal liaison between Rensselaer and the other TROOPER partners, has been modeling the flexible joints between the robot’s fingers. Flickinger is part of the advance team, which will set up and test the hardware and software before the competition. He also will be a member of the TROOPER pit crew during the challenge.

Dong has been responsible for kinematics, performing calculations and writing software that enables Atlas to plan the arm movements required for specific tasks. Williams developed simulation models and controllers for various components of Atlas and simulated tasks. Li has been working on grasp planning.

“For this challenge, it’s not enough to simply grasp an item,” Li said. “The robot must grasp the item firmly, and in such a way that it can be used to accomplish the task.”

The challenge includes 23 tasks during which teams can earn up to 24 points. The highest-scoring teams will advance to the finals. Slated for the end of 2014, the finals will require robots to attempt consecutive physical tasks with degraded communications between the robots and their operators. The winning team will receive $2 million.

More information on the DARPA Robotics Challenge and TROOPER team.