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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.

Operators will tell the robot to open a door but no longer need to tell the machine how to position its body, such as at the shoulder and wrist. The robot can make those calculations on its own and more quickly than an operator could instruct it.

That makes the robot operate much faster now than it did a year and a half ago. However, it's still not fast enough, so DeDonato will be working with the robot's operators to make improvements. There's a separate human operator for each task that the robot needs to perform. At the end of each task, the operator needs to make sure the robot's body or arms are in the correct position so it's ready to quickly move on to the next task.

"It's not that complicated, but you have to worry about everyone who's driving," said DeDonato. "When does one task finish and another start? Where is that tradeoff made? Is the driver leaving the robot in the right state to start the next task?"

The WPI roboticists also discovered that during the task in which the robot moves through debris, such as broken boards and two-by-fours, it's easier and quicker to have the robot shuffle through the debris, pushing it aside with its feet, instead of stopping to bend over, pick up a piece of debris and move it.

Some tasks are easier than others. Warner, for instance, can turn a valve, open a door and walk through it and climb stairs fairly easily and quickly.

The drill task is different. It is the hardest and most time-consuming job for WPI's robot. The task doesn't involve one step. It includes finding the drill, picking it up, turning it on and then using it. Making it more difficult, the team isn't sure what kind of drill will be used during the competition.

"We can do it. It just does take some time," said DeDonato. If the team can't speed up the robot on the drill task, it might have to skip doing it, and lose the point for accomplishing the task. Skipping a task that takes a long time might enable the robot to finish the course and the rest of the tasks, giving the team a chance at more total points.

While the team is trying to build up the robot's speed at basic tasks, Gennert said the group is moving much faster than it did a year ago. One day soon, with more research, robots will move far more easily and quickly.

"Ten years ago, it would have taken hours for the robot to do these things, if at all," added Gennert. "In 10 or 12 years, they could be as fast as humans at these tasks. What can be accomplished has increased rapidly."


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