Ro­bots built for res­cue

DARPA chal­lenge en­vi­sions fu­ture of dis­as­ter re­lief

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Amina Khan

In a nar­row park­ing lot, Brett Kennedy and Sisir Karu­manchi stand around what looks like a suit­case. But then four limbs ex­tend from its sides, bend­ing and click­ing into po­si­tion. Two spread out like legs and two rise up like arms as the robot goes through sev­eral poses, look­ing for all the world like a Trans­former do­ing yoga.

This is RoboSimian, a pro­to­type res­cue robot whose builders at NASA’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory hope can win the $2-mil­lion prize at the DARPA Ro­bot­ics Chal­lenge. The goal: to foster a new gen­er­a­tion of res­cue ro­bots that could help save lives when the next dis­as­ter hits.

Twenty-four teams from around the U.S. and the globe have sent their best and bright­est bots to com­pete in a gru­el­ing ob­sta­cle course — a robot Olympics, if you will.

The chal­lenge has been three years in the mak­ing. Now, a week be­fore the con­test in Pomona, the JPL en­gi­neers think they are ready — but they’re putting the robot through its paces.

RoboSimian stands in front of a door­way lead­ing to a zigzag­ging chip­board wall. Along the wall are a valve that must be turned, a high shelf and a low shelf, each hold­ing two power tools.

To get into the “room,” the 275-pound robot sits back on its haunches and care­fully wheels through the

door­way on its butt.

In­side the lab­o­ra­tory, Kyle Edel­berg is star­ing at a com­puter screen show­ing a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of RoboSimian and what it sees. He can’t walk out­side and check on the robot; his senses are limited by RoboSimian’s.

The robot freezes when it reaches for a tri­an­gle­shaped pull. It’s hard for the robot to see the thin metal, and hard for the hu­man to pick it out even if RoboSimian does see it.

This is how op­er­at­ing a res­cue robot will feel in a dis­as­ter zone, Kennedy says. Ro­bots will be sent to per­form re­con­nais­sance or fix mal­func­tion­ing hard­ware in rav­aged ar­eas that are too danger­ous for hu­mans. So be­ing able to un­der­stand and work with the robot — and prac­tice with it — is key.

Out­side, RoboSimian reaches for a drill on the lower shelf. The bot pushes against the drill to gauge its lo­ca­tion, but pushes too far: The drill tips and falls over.

Most of the other ro­bots in the chal­lenge are hu­manoid — they have a head, a torso, two arms and two legs. But walk­ing on two legs is a ma­jor bal­anc­ing chal­lenge — a gust of wind or a swing­ing door could knock the ro­bots over.

“The thing that would al­most guar­an­tee our win­ning the pro­gram,” Kennedy says, “would be if the Santa Anas kick up.”

Across town, en­gi­neers at UCLA are also work­ing on their en­try into the DARPA chal­lenge. As stu­dents pore over pa­pers and fid­dle with elec­tron­ics, pro­fes­sor Den­nis Hong shows off two mod­els of their hu­manoid robot, THOR-RD, one of which sports shock­ing pink hair.

“We’re try­ing to lit­er­ally save the world and save hu­man­ity,” Hong says. But “we want to have some fun.”

Hong, who moved from Vir­ginia Tech last year, bounces around the lab space, where the UCLA-Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia team has built a smaller ver­sion of a course, much like the one at JPL, to fit in­doors.

Hong has worked on sev­eral dif­fer­ent kinds of ro­bots, some in­spired by an­i­mals, in­clud­ing a snake and an amoeba robot. He even worked with Kennedy sev­eral years ago on a pre­de­ces­sor to RoboSimian named LEMUR.

But for this chal­lenge, Hong has cho­sen to stick with a hu­manoid form. Af­ter all, he says, an­i­mal-in­spired ro­bots can each do one thing well — climb poles or per­haps squeeze into hardto-reach places. That’s use­ful in spe­cific cir­cum­stances dur­ing a dis­as­ter, but not all of them. Here, the ro­bots will be asked to do a wide va­ri­ety of hu­man tasks, so a bipedal ap­proach makes sense.

“Ro­bots need to be hu­manoid for dis­as­ter re­lief, be­cause ro­bots need to drive a car, need to climb steps,” Hong says, though he adds that he would be watch­ing JPL’s per­for­mance.

“If they fail, it means, oh, what I said was right,” he says. “And if they in­deed do well, it means they’ve proven me wrong.”

Gill Pratt, pro­gram manager of the DARPA Ro­bot­ics Chal­lenge, grips the han­dle of a white door un­der a yel­low warn­ing sign that reads, “CAU­TION: HIGH VOLT­AGE. DO NOT EN­TER THIS EN­CLO­SURE.”

He pushes on the door, em­bed­ded in a wall of faux brick and cor­ru­gated metal, to re­veal the real ob­sta­cle course, sit­ting in a field in front of the grand­stand at the Fair­plex in Pomona. Three more iden­ti­cal cour­ses are lined up be­side it.

The course is a three­sided stage that’s open to spec­ta­tors fill­ing the bleach­ers above. Along the wall, the lanky en­gi­neer faces a familiar set of ob­jects: a tall black pipe with an or­ange valve that can be turned like a steer­ing wheel and a stag­gered pair of shelves that await power tools. Near the end of the room, a pile of con­crete cin­der blocks lies in front of the exit to the other side. The ro­bots can choose whether to clam­ber over the cin­der blocks or wres­tle their way through de­bris that will be strewn next to it when the com­pe­ti­tion starts.

The ro­bots will com­pete to beat the clock: fin­ish up to eight tasks be­fore an hour runs out. Four ro­bots will com­pete at a time, each in its own stage on the field, so that spec­ta­tors can com­pare their progress.

The idea for this DARPA chal­lenge grew out of the dis­as­ter at the Fukushima-Dai­ichi nu­clear power plant in Ja­pan, af­ter a mas­sive earth­quake and tsunami in 2011. At one point dur­ing the cri­sis, em­ploy­ees at the nu­clear power plant needed to open some valves to re­lease steam to avert an ex­plo­sion, but could not get close enough, fast enough, be­cause of the mas­sive amounts of ra­di­a­tion.

If ro­bots had been avail­able to per­form the tasks, they could have mit­i­gated the dis­as­ter, the think­ing goes. But the tech­nol­ogy doesn’t yet ex­ist. DARPA, or the De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency, is an arm of the De­fense Depart­ment that seeks to de­velop th­ese kinds of emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies — and they do so by putting on th­ese high-risk, high-re­ward con­tests.

The ro­bots have to drive a car to the door, but the hard­est part of the ride is get­ting out of the ve­hi­cle with­out fall­ing, Pratt says. He goes through the mo­tions of some of the as­signed tasks: He turns a valve, mimes drilling through a win­dow where dry­wall will be placed and climbs over the con­crete blocks. But be­fore he com­pletes the course, he ges­tures at a hole in a wall: a mys­tery task that none of the teams knows about yet.

Since the semi­fi­nals in late 2013, DARPA has made the chal­lenge even harder: The ro­bots can’t op­er­ate with power cords — which means they have to have all their heavy bat­ter­ies on board. And they can’t use safety be­lays to keep the ro­bots from fall­ing — a prob­lem for many of the two-legged ro­bots, which al­ready have trou­ble with bal­ance. (This is where the wheeled and four-limbed contestants may have an ad­van­tage — they’re in­her­ently sta­ble.)

“In a real dis­as­ter, there are no ropes to hold you up,” Pratt says.

As if the tasks weren’t hard enough, Pratt’s team will be shut­ting down the wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tions so that the teams will only get about one sec­ond’s worth of in­for­ma­tion for ev­ery 30 sec­onds of com­pe­ti­tion.

“If you’ve ever been on a re­ally bad cell­phone call ... it’s like that, but 10 times worse,” Pratt says.

There’s a very good rea­son for do­ing this, he points out. In a dis­as­ter zone, the net­works get over­loaded. Be­cause of ra­di­a­tion shield­ing, com­mu­ni­ca­tion goes down. So it’s very hard to di­rectly con­trol a robot when you can only send com­mands and re­ceive vi­tal in­for­ma­tion in bro­ken bits and pieces.

The RoboSimian team is set­ting up in a cav­ernous garage near the ob­sta­cle course. As other teams un­pack ro­bots, lug in couches and start set­ting up mock ob­sta­cle cour­ses, Kennedy’s group seems re­laxed. He shrugs at the sur­round­ing chaos, sip­ping a Pel­le­grino soda while RoboSimian stands be­hind him.

A few mem­bers of the MIT team come over to greet Karu­manchi, who used to work with them — and they hand him a team T-shirt em­bla­zoned with a robot rid­ing a dragon.

“They dared me to wear this with the JPL hat,” he says, smil­ing. “I told them I’d wear it once we beat them.”

The two-day com­pe­ti­tion gives each team two chances to earn a high score. On the first day, RoboSimian is one of the top per­form­ers, as is CHIMP, the other ape-like robot in the run­ning. The be­he­moth built by Carnegie Mel­lon Uni­ver­sity quickly be­comes a fan fa­vorite on the first day when it does what no other fallen robot has done: It picks it­self back up and keeps go­ing, earn­ing roars of ap­proval and the only per­fect eight-point score.

On the sec­ond day, UCLA’s THOR-RD robot, like many of the other bipedal ro­bots, takes minc­ing steps to­ward its tar­get, but falls back­ward part­way be­tween the valve and the drill. It’s out of the run­ning for the big prize.

Af­ter its sec­ond per­for­mance, RoboSimian also falls short, end­ing up in fifth place.

CHIMP’s high score from the first day helps earn it third place and $500,000; sec­ond place and $1 mil­lion goes to Run­ning Man from Team IHMC Ro­bot­ics in Florida. Team KAIST from South Korea takes the $2-mil­lion prize af­ter dis­patch­ing all eight tasks on Satur­day with amaz­ing speed.

As the event is wind­ing down, four-wheeled Mo­maro, from Team Nim­bRo Res­cue in Ger­many, strug­gles through the course. There’s no chance the bright or­ange robot will win, but still it pushes on alone through the de­bris with one wheel askew, to cheers from the crowd.

But the stairs still stretch in front of the robot. Mo­maro’s spin­ning head seems to pon­der whether to at­tempt this fi­nal task. Then, very slowly, it turns its torso to the grand­stand, raises an arm and jig­gles it.

It takes a mo­ment for the crowd to re­al­ize what’s hap­pen­ing, and then the ap­plause grows to a crescendo: The robot has tried its best. Now, it is wav­ing good­bye.

Gina Fer­azzi Los An­ge­les Times

THE WIN­NER, DRC-Hubo by South Korea’s Team KAIST, climbs the fi­nal step of the DARPA Ro­bot­ics Chal­lenge’s ob­sta­cle course, com­plet­ing all eight tasks.

Pho­tog raphs by Gina Fer­azzi Los An­ge­les Times

A WORKER tends to a fallen robot built by a team from MIT. Twenty-four teams en­tered the DARPA Ro­bot­ics Chal­lenge in Pomona, with ro­bots com­pet­ing to fin­ish up to eight tasks in an ob­sta­cle course meant to sim­u­late a dis­as­ter zone be­fore an hour runs out.

RUN­NING MAN ex­its a car. For ro­bots, the hard­est part of driv­ing is get­ting out of the car with­out fall­ing.

SPEC­TA­TORS cheer as Run­ning Man, built by Team IHMC Ro­bot­ics in Florida, suc­cess­fully ex­its a car.

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