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It's now or never to speed up robots for DARPA challenge

Sharon Gaudin | May 8, 2015
The robotics team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute has three weeks before the finals of the DARPA Robotics Challenge to make their robot twice as fast as it is today.

WORCESTER, Mass. — The robotics team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute has three weeks before the finals of the DARPA Robotics Challenge to make their robot twice as fast as it is today.

"We need two hours now to get through the course," said Matt DeDonato, the WPI team's technical project manager. "If we had two hours, we'd be golden, but we're only going to have one. So we need to speed it up."

The WPI team is one of 25 teams qualified to compete in the robotics challenge finals on June 5 and 6 in Pomona, Calif. The challenge, which launched in 2012, is intended to encourage roboticists to build robots that can one day provide support in a disaster.

In the last challenge, held in December 2013, each team's robot was required to perform eight tasks, including climbing a ladder, driving a car , opening doors and using a drill. The robot had 30 minutes to perform each task.

This year, the robots will face a course that simulates a disaster situation and will have to take on each task one after another. The robot must complete all the tasks in one hour.

DeDonato said WPI's humanoid robot is capable of completing each of the different tasks. The issue is speed.

The WPI team had planned to use the cloud to speed up their robot during the final competition, but the team was forced to change plans.

Michael Gennert, director of robotics engineering at WPI, said a team of students is working on putting software commands in the cloud so the WPI robot named Warner could access those instructions anytime and get directions even if the Wi-Fi connection with the robot's operators was down. That would have meant that even if the robot was working without its controllers, it still could access information and pre-set directions.

However, the WPI team was preparing to use Amazon's cloud platform and only recently found out that DARPA will only give competitors access to Microsoft's Azure platform. The work they had done for the Amazon platform is not transferrable to Microsoft's cloud.

"It's a little disappointing, but we have to show that the cloud can improve robotic performance," Gennert said. "In the bigger picture, we'll certainly see more use of the cloud and that's one of the things that will help us double robotic performance in 18 to 24 months."

With the cloud no longer an option, the WPI team is tweaking its algorithms to try to speed up Warner, but the group is also working to make the robot's human operators work faster and more efficiently.

In the 2013 competition, the operators gave the robot commands for most of what it did — how far to turn its wrist, how far to extend its arm or how many steps to take in which direction. Today's robot is much more autonomous.

 

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