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Assistant Professor Luis Sentis, and PI on the UT part of the Robotics Challenge, in his lab explaining their programming code.

Assistant Professor Luis Sentis, and PI on the UT part of the Robotics Challenge, in his lab explaining their programming code.

University of Texas at Austin Lead Assistant Professor Luis Sentis and a team of researchers, Ph.D. candidate Nick Paine and Research Engineer Cory Crean, along with Research Fellows Dr. Gwen Johnson and Dr. Liang Fok, (see team's bios) are working with NASA's Johnson Space Center to compete in the Department of Defense's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge (DRC), a scientific competition to develop an agile robot that is capable of completing eight complex tasks. The goal of the competition is to design and produce a robot able to go into a disaster situation such as the recent Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant and shut it down without endangering human lives. Difficulties in response to incidents such as Fukushima, Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina, became the impetus for the competition. Development of this technology has the potential to save countless lives.

Competition Expectations

This is a page from Luis Sentis' design notebook. These drawings help the scientists think through the algorithms they will write for robotic movement.

This is a page from Luis Sentis' design notebook. These drawings help the scientists think through the algorithms they will write for robotic movement.

The ambitious competition requires researchers to design and build robots unlike anything currently in use. DARPA envisions a robot that will be able to walk as well as a human; get in and out of a vehicle; drive the vehicle; turn on and off switches, pumps and valves; open doors; turn knobs; use power tools; climb ladders; navigate debris and obstacles (both on foot and while driving); and make autonomous decisions as to how to accomplish these tasks. Someone will be remotely in contact with the robot, but the robot itself will be primarily responsible for its own actions. Each team's robot will be judged on its ability to carry out the tasks, as well as the speed with which the tasks are accomplished. Most robots are expected to be humanoids because they will work inside environments designed for humans, although that is not a design requirement. Designing a humanoid bipedal robot that can walk through difficult or cluttered terrain has never been done before. To be able to move at the speed of a human and do what would seem relatively simple tasks, such as turning a knob, are extremely difficult programming tasks. To design a robot that can get into a car and drive it, is beyond the scope of any current technology. The lack of semi-autonomous mobile technologies were primarily responsible for the inability to shut down Fukushima, resulting in damage to the ecosystem, destruction of buldings and over 100,000 people displaced from their homes.

Teams and the competition parameters

Rendering of the robot the NASA/UT team is designing.

Rendering of the robot the NASA/UT team is designing.

This is a two-part competition which includes two competition tracks, Track A and Track B. Track A, the one Dr. Sentis' team is competing in, must design both the software and hardware for the robot. Track B competitors are designing only the software that will be used on an existing robot made by Boston Dynamics (see video on YouTube). Each team has been funded to do the initial research, with Sentis' team receiving funding to hire three Research Fellows and two PhD students. The Track B teams receive significantly less funding, as they do not have to build the physical robot, but all the teams are competing against each other for a grand prize of $2 million. The 19 teams (Track A and Track B combined) will reach the first milestone of the competition on December 13, 2013. Eight teams will be selected to continue for another year, with the final prize to be awarded in 2014. The seven teams in Track A include:

  1. Virginia Tech, THOR
  2. Raytheon, Guardian
  3. Schaft, Inc.
  4. Carnegie Mellon University
  5. NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab
  6. Drexel University
  7. NASA John Space Center/University of Texas at Austin

Each of the different teams brings different expertise to the overall knowledge needed to develop a robot to the design goals. NASA is competing with two different teams since the technology needed to work in a disaster situation is directly applicable to performing tasks in space or on another planet.

UT Involvement

Sentis and his team split their time between labs in the Mechanical Engineering Department and their lab at NASA, which was formerly the lab where the Apollo, the spacecraft that landed men on the moon in 1969, was designed. Nick Paine is involved in the actual mechanical construction of the robot and is working on compliant actuators to enable the robot to walk and move. This work is an extension of earlier work he has done as a Ph.D. candidate. The other members of the team are working on different aspects of the assignments, currently high level control programming and simulating various types of movements. Mechanical Engineering alumnus and Principal Investigator of the Game Changing Development Program at NASA, Dr. Rob Ambrose is collaborating with the UT researchers. Ambrose and his team developed a robot named Robonaut 2 that is able to perform tasks in space at the International Space Station. They are hopeful that expertise will help make the NASA/UT Mechanical Engineering team a top competitor in the challenge.

The Mechanical Engineering Department applauds their efforts and wishes them well as they work to make the cut to the final level to complete and win the competition.

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