Virginia Tech’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory is leading an international team of academic and private corporate robotics experts in developing humanoid robots designed for intense disaster relief as part of a new U.S. Department of Defense-sponsored Robotics Challenge that lab founder/director Dennis Hong calls the “greatest challenge of my career.”

The task is massive: The adult-sized robot must be designed to enter a vehicle, drive it, and then exit the vehicle, walk over rubble, clear objects blocking a door, open the door, and enter a building. The robot then must visually and audibly locate and shut off a leaking valve, connect a hose or connector, climb an industrial ladder and traverse an industrial walkway. 

The final and possibly most difficult task: Use a power tool and break through a concrete wall. All these tasks must be accomplished under a set time limit.

The robot’s ultimate end goal: Help save lives during a disaster where it is too dangerous or volatile for humans to enter. It’s nothing short of a robot fit for the movies made real and part of the 26-month Robotics Challenge announced today in Arlington, Va., by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, a subsidiary of the U.S. Department of Defense dedicated to high-tech research. Virginia Tech will receive $4 million for the project.

“This is the craziest, boldest, most expensive, most challenging, yet possibly the most important robotics project in the history of mankind,” said Hong, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, who will head the team. “We have a mission. Whether we succeed or not, if the technology we develop through this project can even save a single person’s life in the future, then everything is worth it. We believe we are truly changing the world. This challenge was probably what I was born for.”

The Robotics Challenge is a direct answer to the Fukushima Nuclear Plant disaster that befell Japan following a massive earthquake in March 2011. Japan, despite being known as a leader in the field of humanoid robotics, had no readily available robots that could enter the plant site – besieged by water from a tsunami after-effect of the earthquake, lacking power, and under meltdown conditions – to take stock of damage and begin work to stave off disaster and/or repair damage to the nuclear facility. 

“The primary technical goal of the [competition] is to develop ground robots capable of executing complex tasks in dangerous, degraded, human-engineered environments,” the agency stated in its announcement of the challenge. “Competitors […] are expected to focus on robots that can use standard tools and equipment commonly available in human environments, ranging from hand tools to vehicles, with an emphasis on adaptability to tools with diverse specifications.”

In all, seven international teams will participate in the full Robotics Challenge, developing hardware and software systems that will operate the team. The challenge also includes several other tracks such as developing software for such a humanoid robot, and building computer simulation scenarios for rescue missions.

The exact type of robot to be developed also is left open, said Hong. The competition calls for neither an autonomous humanoid robot that can function on its own without instruction nor an “avatar”-like robot that would be fully controlled by an off-set human user. Hong said the robot developed by his team will operate under “supervised autonomy.”

Robots developed during the competition also could be used to help to locate and/or diffuse bombs or fight fires, according to the agency. Robots that are used now for such actions are limited in movement and agility, for instance being confined to wheels or treads. Passing over debris from a leveled building, or passing over so-called “knee knockers” in naval ships are, thus far, impossible for current robots in use.

Virginia Tech’s team will receive an estimated $4 million in funding, divided into three phases. The team must succeed at each phase, proving it has a viable working robot that can handle the assigned myriad of tasks. The first allocation of funding totals $1.80 million, with the second totaling $1.2 million, and the third just less than $1 million, said Hong.

The project’s end date is December 2014.

Joining Virginia Tech on the competition team are The University of Pennsylvania’s own robotics lab, which previously teamed with the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory for back-to-back championship wins at the international RoboCup soccer competition; ROBOTIS, a Korean-based robotics company that partnered to develop an open-platform version of Hong’s 18-inch soccer-playing humanoid robot, DARwIn-OP; and Harris Corp., an international communications and information company headquartered in Melbourne, Fla.

The four team members each will have its own task to perform. Virginia Tech will develop the humanoid robot platform including new actuators that mimic biological muscles. University of Pennsylvania will work on 3-D perception and navigation, in addition to the robot’s ability to “plan.” Harris will develop seamless manipulation systems, while ROBOTIS will create an open-platform system and arms with high-end, dexterous hands.

As with Hong’s other robots, CHARLI, DARwIn, and others, this robot will have a name, THOR, and actually be comprised of two robot platforms. T.H.O.R. – short for Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot. It will be “light, agile, and resilient with perception, planning, and human interface technology that infers a human operator’s intent.”

It will operate on batteries, use high-end cameras for vision, and operate without a control tether.

THOR will be based on efforts already made with a newer robot developed by the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory: ASH, a project Hong is working on for the U.S. Navy. That robot, part of project SAFFiR -- Shipboard Autonomous Fire Fighting Robot – is being designed to extinguish fires aboard naval ships and also is designed to resemble a human, walk on uneven surfaces and steps, and safely clear the knee-knockers found in many naval ships.

The team will develop a second robot, THOR-OP, an Open Platform robot for possible commercial use. The hardware will be made open source after the competition, allowing others to use the design for free, just as with the the successful DARwIn-OP humanoid robot developed from support from the National Science Foundation. Currently more than 400 units of DARwIn-OP are being used worldwide for robotics research and education, said Hong.

This is Hong’s second participation in a challenge put forth by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. He worked on the agency’s DARPA Urban Challenge, a competition that tasked research teams with developing autonomous vehicles that could operate in a city. Virginia Tech captured Third Place in the 2007 Urban Challenge, and the research inspired later university projects such as Hong’s participation in the Blind Driver Challenge.

“When DARPA announced the first Grand Challenge and then the Urban Challenge, many people thought it was impossible,” Hong said. “We now have technology to have autonomous cars nearing real use in our lives and even to let blind people drive. The Robotics Challenge will have a similar impact.”

Hong’s robotics team will consist of many of the graduate- and undergraduate-level students that have worked on the CHARLI, DARwIn, and ASH robot platforms. One former student, J.K. Han, now an engineer with ROBOTIS and based in Seoul, Korea, also will work on the team. Han received his doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech in spring 2012, and is the chief architect of CHARLI, which originally debuted in spring 2010.

Faculty wise, joining Hong from Virginia Tech will be Craig Woolsey, associate professor with the Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering and director of the university’s Virginia Center for Autonomous Systems. Woolsey’s current projects include autonomous aircraft and boats.

“The influence that the DARPA Grand and Urban challenges had on the development of robotic ground vehicles was tremendous, but the potential impact of this Robotics Challenge is much, much bigger,” he said. “The problem is extremely tough, but this is an all-star team that is very well-suited to the task.”

The Robotics Competition, as set by the agency, will include four tracks, ranging from the design and implementation of the entire robotic system to operate in a real environment, to tracks where teams build only software for such a robot that will act in a simulation and later deployed on robots provided by the competition organizers. Virginia Tech’s team is one of only seven teams to be competing in the first track, which Hong said is the “real deal.”

The six other teams competing in the man hardware/software track, known as Track A, are led by: Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center, Drexel University, Raytheon, SCHAFT Inc., NASA’s Johnson Space Center and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

“The range of designs submitted by the selected Track A performers reflects DARPA’s emphasis that while the robots competing in the DRC must be able to operate in human-engineered environments, it does not necessarily have to be humanoid in form,” the agency stated.

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