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Separating science fact from science fiction in robotics

Sharon Gaudin | June 24, 2015
Humans are still better at operating robots than robots are running on their own.

The WPI team developed an algorithm that could enable a robot to recognize a door handle in 10 seconds, Padir said. As exciting as that was, a human could do the same thing in a moment, so the team used the operator, instead of autonomy, to get the robot to perform the task.

"At the end of the day, the success was in how we maximize the efficiencies of using humans to help make the robot act more efficiently," Padir said. "None of it was saying, 'Robot, go turn the valve. Robot, go cut the wall.' None of it was fully autonomous."

In the weeks leading up to the finals, WPI's team focused on using more autonomy to make its robot faster.

The team needed the help. A month before the finals, WPI's robot, nicknamed Warner, still needed two hours to make it through the DARPA course of eight tasks. Those tasks included driving a car, opening a door, climbing stairs and maneuvering over rough terrain.

The problem was that they would only have a single hour to complete those tasks during the competition.

At the time, Matt DeDonato, the WPI team's technical project manager, said the team tried to make the human operators running its robot more efficient, while also increasing the robot's autonomy so it could do more work without waiting for its operators to send it guidance.

Felipe Polido, a senior robotics engineer on WPI's team, said, in the end, the team used a lot more autonomy with the robot than it had during the 2013 trials, but relied heavily on a combination of human and robot teamwork.

"Before, we would tell it to move its arm this much, move its shoulder this much," Polido said. "This time, there was much more autonomy because the robot could just move its arm on its own. For the plug task, the robot moved its hand to the plug but the operator helped it grab the plug."

The team from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory,however, used less autonomy in the finals than it did during the trials.

"We shifted more to the operator to make it faster," said Brett Kennedy, principle investigator for JPL's team in the robotics challenge. "The challenge isn't really about autonomy but about getting the job done. We're not going to force autonomy on the situation."

Pam Melroy, deputy director of the tactical technology office at DARPA, said the fact that different teams used different levels of autonomy and that humans are still trusted to be faster than robots is part of what DARPA officials wanted to learn at the challenge.

"One of the purposes of the DARPA robotics challenge is to show science fact vs. science fiction," said Melroy, who is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a former NASA astronaut. "State of the art in autonomy is extremely challenging. We're just not as far along as people think we are, especially when you mix in the software and hardware together in a real-world environment."


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