Two Virginia Tech College of Engineering teams are now in Florida taking part in physical trials for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Robotics Challenge. The event’s end goal: Create rescue robots that can maneuver in disaster scenes and save lives.

The teams from Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering will compete against 15 others at the Dec. 20-21 event at Homestead Miami Speedway. For this baseline trial event, DARPA officials will see how far each of the 17 robotics teams have come in building and programming new robots from scratch, or writing operating program software for pre-built humanoid robots supplied by Boston Dynamics. DARPA is part of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Virginia Tech is participating in both categories, newly robots and pre-provided robots.

Competing are Team THOR, an international team of academic and private roboticists headed by Dennis Hong of the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory, and Team ViGIR, a collaboration between College of Engineering spin-off company TORC Robotics – based at Virginia Tech’s Corporate Research Center and the Virginia Tech Department of Computer Science’s Center for Human-Computer Interaction.

“The team is excited to be here in Miami and is ready to face the challenge head-on,” said Jesse Hurdus, an engineer with TORC Robotics, and a two-time graduate of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering.

“With such an accelerated schedule and seemingly impossible set of technical challenges, we know that all the teams have been pushing themselves to the limit, just as we have.”

The robots eventually will be tasked with a variety of actions, including driving a ruggedized vehicle, traversing ruble, handling tools, opening and walking through doors, climbing a ladder, and using a power tool to break through a wall. Hong has called the competition the “greatest challenge of my career.”

The event this month is designed to see how far each team is getting in reaching those goals. It is not expected that all robots will complete all of the assigned tasks this year, DARPA officials have stressed leading up to the event. Up to eight teams of the current group of 17 competitors will be allowed to carry onto the December 2014 finale, which will culminate in a $2 million prize for the winner.

“After so many long days and nights, we’re just eager to compete and hopefully make it to the next phase,” Hurdus added.

Recent disasters such as the 2011 earthquake in Japan that led to the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear engineering plant highlighted the limited responses humans can safely perform in dangerous environments, according to DARPA. The agency has said robotic response units can allow humans to quickly respond to such disasters, but from a remote, safe location, thus saving lives and potentially millions or more of dollars in damage to infrastructure, and/or worsening any environmental catastrophe.

Each of the teams -- combining a strong partnership between university research groups and alumni and private companies -- entered the competition more than a year ago and learned of their advancement into the second phase this past July, with ViGIR receiving its Boston Dynamics Atlas robot this past August.

Team THOR – short for Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot -- will bring two robots to the competition. THOR-OP is a humanoid robot less than 5 feet tall and modeled after Hong’s CHARLI the Humanoid Robot that utilizes position-controlled servos for actuation. It will participate in the competition this year. THOR is a nearly 6-foot tall humanoid robot using what Hong calls “cutting-edge technology,” such as custom series elastic actuators with impedance control, and momentum control for walking. THOR will participate in a large expo event at the speedway, featuring the works of competitors and high-end robotics companies. THOR will then participate in the full competition in 2014, taking THOR-OP’s slot.

“THOR-OP is the competition platform for this year, 2013,” said Hong. “It was proposed at the beginning as a research platform until THOR is complete and as a ‘Plan B’ in case THOR would not be competition ready by the trials this year. And we are going with ‘Plan B’ for this year.

“THOR is the platform we are pushing to research and develop ground breaking technology, including what we call artificial muscles. If successful this would be a game changing technology that will enable walking, two-legged robots to really be used in real life, in structured environments, and to develop safe robots that can interact with humans,” Hong added.

Hong’s team includes his Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory, as well as The University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP robotics lab; ROBOTIS, a Seoul, Korea-based company that partnered to develop an open-platform version of Hong’s 18-inch soccer-playing humanoid robot, DARwIn-OP; and Harris Corp. headquartered in Melbourne, Fla.

In addition to TORC and the Virginia Tech’s Center for Human-Computer Interaction, Team ViGIR -- short for Virginia-Germany Interdisciplinary Robotics –includes the German-based Technische Universitat Darmstadt, Interactive Digital Human Group of the Laboratoire d’Informatique, de Robotique et de Microélectronique of Montpellier, France, as well as Oregon State University.

Stateside, ViGIR is headed by TORC’s David Conner, a two-time Hokie graduate, and Doug Bowman, professor of computer science and director of the Human-Computer Interaction Center. Hurdus, the TORC engineer and two-time Hokie graduate, serves as project manager for the team.

ViGIR’s robot, built by Boston Dynamics and shipped to Blacksburg this past summer, has been dubbed FLOR, to rhyme with THOR, but also after Saint Florian, the patron saint of firefighters. Team ViGIR’s goal is to design software platforms that will allow human operators to remotely control a robot without interruption, and complete the same competition tasks assigned to the newly built THOR.

Hurdus called the teaming of public universities with private industry, with TORC being founded by several Virginia Tech alumni, is its own reward. “Robotics competitions like this are a unique mix of technology development and research along with competitive sport and teamwork,” he said. “As a result, it is very unlike what is typically done in research labs and at the same time very different from what is typically done in the private sector. This is why a partnership like ours can be an important advantage.”

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