The next time disaster strikes, human rescue workers might not have to put themselves into harm’s way to save lives. Drexel is participating in an international challenge to design a robot for responding to crisis situations, such as the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. In true Philadelphia fashion, the Drexel team is putting its robot through the paces -with the intensity of the city’s iconic boxer- in preparation for its showdown with a host of formidable opponents. (Cue “Eye of the Tiger” for this training montage…)
The Challenge Begins: “The Biggest Show in Robotics This Decade”
When the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s announced last fall that a Drexel-led team of robotics engineers would be among the groups vying for the ultimate prize in the Agency’s Robotics Challenge, Dr. Paul Oh, the team leader and director of the Drexel Autonomous Systems Laboratory, saw it as a chance to make a significant contribution to the advancement of robotics.
“The DARPA Robotics Challenge will be the biggest show in robotics this decade and will fundamentally transform our interactions with robots,” Oh said.
Pitted against teams from NASA Jet Propulstion Lab, NASA Johnson Space Center, Carnegie Mellon, Virginia Tech and Japanese company called SHAFT, Inc. Drexel is availing itself of the seven HUBO robot platforms that it acquired as part of NSF grants over the past five years. Calling on his many contacts in the robotics community, Oh assembled a team that includes humanoid robotics experts from nine other universities in hopes that pooling their collective abilities will give Team DRC-HUBO and edge in the competition.
Divide and Conquer
Oh is counting on each member to tackle one of the eight disaster-response tasks laid out by DARPA as part of the competition. Of course, the challenge of this approach is the actual process of collaboration between researchers in eight different universities across the country (at Swarthmore, Purdue, Georgia Tech, Indiana, Ohio State, Columbia, Delaware, Worcester Polytechnic Institute) and one in Korea (at the Korean Advanced Institute of Technology) who are all splitting time with the robots.
Robotics Summer Camp
After eight months of work at their respective campus facilities, periodic visitations and many skype sessions, the team members are gathering this summer -in one place- for the first time since the start of the competition.
A robotics summer camp -of sorts- is being held in the Drexel Armory, where DASL has temporarily located its DRC operations. A converted vehicle trailer now serves as a command and control center and a set designer was brought on board to construct a lifelike testing environment. “’Camp’ conjures memories of collectively doing activities –everything from eating together, sharing sleeping quarters and working together,” Oh said. “The extended time together allows ideas to gestate and best practices to emerge. This is why the students are sharing the Towers Hall dorm and the same work space in the Armory.”
In addition to advancing its programming and capabilities, the robot itself has grown over the last eight months –from a squat 4-foot-3, 87 pounds to an upgraded “DRC-HUBO” model that measures 4-feet, 8-inches and weighs in at 115 pounds.
Some of the features included with the new KAIST-produced model are a three-finger hand, longer arms, stronger joints, light detection and ranging (LIDAR) “bifocals” and the ability to maneuver over terrain on all fours.
Training sessions for the robots will continue throughout the summer and into the fall. The team is welcoming interested visitors to check out the robots and the testing environment. Starting on August 1, free tours will be offered by appointment (email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org) or by stopping by the Drexel Armory between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday until the end of August. You can also follow the team’s progress on its blog or on twitter @DRCHubo.
The first head-to-head trial is set for December 2013 in Homestead, Fla.
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