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Changes afoot as DARPA challenge robots prep for upgrade

Sharon Gaudin | July 29, 2014
WPI robotics team works to make its robot more autonomous.

As researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) make progress giving their humanoid robot more autonomy, they're getting ready to get their hands on an upgrade robot this fall.

The robotics team that made the DARPA robotics challenge finals has been working 50 to 60 hours a week getting ready for that last challenge, which is set for next June 5 and 6 in Pomona, Calif.

The teams are working to put their robots through a series of tasks -- climbing ladders, walking over rubble, opening doors and driving cars -- designed to ultimately lead to robots capable of working with humans after natural or man-made disasters.

The 11 finalists, which are competing for a $2 million prize, include teams from WPI, MIT, Virginia Tech and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

WPI, and the rest of the teams using one of Boston Dynamics' Atlas robots, are going to have to do without their six-foot, 330-pound humanoid robot, dubbed Warner, for the entire month of October.

Matt DeDonato, the WPI team's technical project manager told Computerworld that Boston Dynamics, which built the robot that many of the teams in the DARPA challenge are using, will take their robots back at the beginning of October and spend the month upgrading them from the knees up.

"It won't look much different, but a lot of the systems will change," said DeDonato. "We'll be getting two to three computers on board the robot. Now, they're mostly off board the robot...."

As of now, there's just one processor inside the robot. Most of the computing is done by off-board computers with data sent back and forth on a fiber optic cable tethered to the robot.

In the final challenge, there will be no fiber optic tether. That means the roboticists will go from having a 10 Gbps cabled link to talk to the robot to a wireless link that only gives them about 300 Mbps.

With added onboard processors, the robot will be doing more of the calculations and decision-making itself, relieving the need to send as much information back and forth to the machine's handlers.

"Now, we have to migrate our software from the off-board computers to the on-board computers," said DeDonato. "The software was designed for human control. Now we'll restructure how the data flows through the system and what talks to what. The way we talk to the robot will have to be rethought."

He added that the team is considering putting all of the robot's balancing and standing algorithms on one on-board processor. "That way, the balancing can run at real time and not be bogged down with other systems taking up resources," said DeDonato.


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