Researcher finds redemption, possible hotel deal after robotics challenge

DARPA challenge robot may deliver your breakfast next time you stay in Las Vegas

The UNLV robot took eighth place in the DARPA challenge finals. It may one day be doing room service at a Las Vegas hotel.

The UNLV robot took eighth place in the DARPA challenge finals. It may one day be doing room service at a Las Vegas hotel.

A professor not only found redemption at the finals of the DARPA Robotics Challenge earlier this month, he might have found his robot a job at a Las Vegas hotel.

The robotics team led by Paul Oh, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, took eighth place in the final contest where 24 teams from around the world competed to build the best semi-autonomous robot that could be used in disaster response.

Reaching the top third of competitors was a big comeback for Oh, who had a disappointing showing as the team leader with Drexel University in Philadelphia during the December 2013 robotics challenge trials that led up to the finals. The Drexel robot fell during the trials and fumbled time after time.

For Oh, who hadn't planned on participating in the competition until DARPA reached out to him in January, came back to compete with only six months to prepare and then finishing in the top eight, was a greater success than he expected.

"That's the Cinderella story here," Oh told Computerworld. "We showed that we had a [good] design. Better is the ending than the beginning. Better the spirit of patience than one of pride. There's that redemption."

Now more than one Las Vegas hotel is talking with Oh about using the team's Hubo robot, which can walk on two legs, kneel and roll on wheels built into its knees, to work in customer service.

"These hotels out here are humungous, with thousands of rooms," Oh said. "You can't just throw labor at it -- not efficiently, not effectively... It's a promising thing. Given you have 40 million visitors to Vegas every year, how do you deal with that volume? People don't want to wait three hours for room service. How can we use tech to make that more accommodating?"

Oh declined to say which hotels he's in talks with but did note that the companies are interested in having robots deliver room service and toiletries to guests. There even has been discussion about the robot's ability to handle cleaning services.

If Hubo goes to work for a Las Vegas hotel, it wouldn't be the first time a robot has walked a hotel's halls.

The Aloft Hotel in Cupertino, Calif., has been using a robot butler to deliver snacks and incidentals to guest rooms.

"At the Aloft, we strive to be different than any other hotels," said Derrick Agas, front desk supervisor at the Aloft, which serves a high-tech clientele, in a March interview. "We're in the middle of Silicon Valley where it's pretty much tech central, so we try to do the newest and greatest things. This came out of that."

The comeback

At the DARPA Robotics Challenge, the UNLV team earned six out of eight potential points in the finals.

UNLV's robot fell but was still able to complete most of the tasks, which included opening and walking through a door, turning a valve and driving a car.

The goal of the challenge was to encourage the development of robots that could one day be used in disaster response. The robots would go into buildings, shut down systems, look for damage and find victims -- eliminating the need to sendi human rescue teams into dangerous areas.

While Oh and his UNLV team came in eighth, Oh's cousin, Jun-Ho Oh of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), won the challenge.

The cousins were both using Hubo robots, which they had designed and built together when they both worked at Drexel. Both later moved on to other institutions.

Jun-Ho Oh and the Kaist team earned a perfect eight points and beat Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC), which came in second, and Team Tartan Rescue from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which placed third.

The top three teams scored eight points but their rankings were based on how fast they were able to complete the course.

Paul said a win for his cousin was a win for him, as well.

"His first place finish has my fingerprints on it," Oh said. "In 2013, we were arm-in-arm and we saw our biggest nightmare unfold with our robot falling down and fumble after fumble. We both had that sting of disappointment. We both thought that chapter was over, but we both moved on."

Moving on was a testament to their determination.

"I just love a Cinderella story," said Oh. "I think it's inspiration for a lot of people... You don't look at these disappointments and let them paralyze you. Continue to do the good fight and believe in yourself. Learn from the disappointment and do better."

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