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WPI's team gears up for final battle of the bots

Sharon Gaudin | May 6, 2015
Roboticists race the clock as finals for DARPA Robotics Challenge near.

WPI robot
Sharon Gaudin. The robotics team at WPI is getting ready for the DARPA Robotics Challenge, where they will go up against 24 other teams from around the world.

WORCESTER, Mass. -- In about a month, the robotics team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute will have to put their robot up against 24 other teams from around the world in the DARPA Robotics Challenge finals.

After working for several years on this project, the team is down to its last three weeks to make their humanoid robot as autonomous, fast and reliable as possible.

That means they'll be working around the clock until Warner, their Boston Dynamics-built robot, is put in a crate and shipped to Pomona, Calif., for the last challenge in this global competition.

"We are not ready today," Michael Gennert, director of robotics engineering at WPI, told Computerworld. "A month ago, we weren't even close to doing what we can do today. This team is doing a little bit more and doing it a little bit faster every day. We will be ready."

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is hosting the finals for the Robotics Challenge on June 5-6 in Pomona, Calif. Twenty-five teams -- including WPI, MIT, Carnegie Mellon University and NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab -- from around the world will compete for $3.5 million in prizes.

The challenge, which launched in 2012, is designed to get roboticists working on semi-autonomous robots that can one day be used in the event of natural and man-made disasters.

In the last challenge in the run-up to the finals, the robots were required to perform eight tasks, one at a time. The robots had 30 minutes to do each task. That, however, was a year and a half ago, much more is expected of the robots this time.

In this year's finals, each team will be tasked with having its robot work through a mockup of a disaster, stringing all the tasks together in one overall situation. The teams also will have one hour to complete all of the tasks, including an added surprise job.

To get through the course, the robots are required to drive a car, climb stairs, use a drill and turn a valve. To complete these tasks, the robots will need to be more agile, better balanced and faster.

Many of the teams in the finals are using Boston Dynamics' Atlas robot. Those teams sent their robots back to the maker this winter for upgrades and now are working with a version, which is about 75% new.

Matt DeDonato, the WPI team's technical project manager, said the redesigned robot is a lot different from the knees up.


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