NASA's JPL preps two robots for DARPA challenge

Episode 6 of the DARPA's Road to the Finals series has us visiting Pasadena, Calif., where scientists for NASA's JPL are preparing two robots for the June 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge finals.

(Editor's note: The following is a transcript of the video seen above)

Voiceover, Keith Shaw:The robotics team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute isn't the only competitor in the DARPA Robotics Challenge - another team preparing for the finals is from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In addition to making improvements to its Robosimian entry, the JPL team is considering entering a second robot to the June 2015 event. The Surrogate robot is different in that it looks more like a humanoid robot than the Robosimian, which was based on the movement patterns of apes and monkeys.

Brett Kennedy, principal investigator for Robosimian and Surrogate, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory:"We have a first-of-kind, dexterous spine that holds an upper body that then has two limbs attached to it, and on top of all that is a head and neck. The main reason we would want to potentially change robots is to get better manipulation capabilities from the robot that we take to the finals."

Voiceover:Each robot has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, so Kennedy's JPL team is making improvements to both robots as the finals get closer.

Kennedy:"We've had this internal competition between the two robots - so there's Surrogate on one side that's this track system, it rolls along very quickly, it's got [a] more humanoid sort of layout, so that we can see things better and we can grab things with two hands better. The disadvantages it has is that the track system is not as good about going over debris and obstacles as Robosimian."

Voiceover:The team is also making refinements to the robots to make them faster, run without being tethered to power and improvements to software algorithms.

Kennedy:"When we started the task we had a very long laundry list of things that JPL has on the shelf in terms of capabilities. A lot of the perception algorithms we use, a lot of the planning algorithms we use, were there but we didn't have time to implement them for the competition. For the finals, we're getting all that stuff down off the shelf and trying to make the system better."

Voiceover:During the December 2013 Trials, Robosimian performed well on the valve-turning task, as well as clearing debris. It did not participate in the vehicle driving challenge, which it will need to do as part of the Finals. In addition, DARPA officials plan to hit the teams with a surprise task to complete.

Kennedy:They're going to pick something that's dramatic, I would imagine, and something that's fun for the audience. I think that's going to be an important thing here. A lot of this is just as much about outreach and development of the idea of robots in society as it is about the actual technology.

Voiceover:But despite the upcoming challenges, Kennedy and his team feel confident that they'll do well.

Kennedy:"I think that the real value of what we're doing here is not so much about winning, which would be nice and we're certainly competitive folks so we're gonna try, but it's actually showing the world what we can do."

Voiceover:And if Robosimian or Surrogate doesn't win, the robots will still have jobs after the finals.

Kennedy:"Surrogate itself was used for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency in terms of being able to go into hazardous environments for chemical, radiological or biological hazards and do testing in there without exposing human operators unnecessarily. We're not suggesting that it's replacing people, but if you can get a robot in there quickly and without risking people and start doing the testing early, that's a significant advantage in lowering risk."

Voiceover:In Pasadena, California, this is Keith Shaw, reporting for Computerworld.

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