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DARPA Robotics Challenge- will NASA's Valkyrie win

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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Robotics Challenge Trials begin Dec. 20-21 at Florida’s Homestead-Miami Speedway. This is when 17 teams, out of the original 100 world-wide teams, will take their multi-limbed, capable-looking robots through eight realistic disaster-response tasks leaving one team which will then receive a $2 million prize. That may not be Mega-Million lottery money, but it is very respectable.

DARPA is trying to improve robotic mobility and dexterity to achieve the following goals for disaster-response robots, Dr. Gill Pratt, DARPA’s Robotics Challenge program manager, said:

  • The robots have to work in environments that are engineered for people, including environments that are degraded by an evolving disaster;
  • The robots have to be able to use human tools, everything from screwdrivers to fire trucks that may be available in the disaster area; and
  • The robots must have an improved human-to-robot interface, to reduce the amount of training needed by personnel who are experts in handling disasters but not necessarily in handling robots.

Each of the eight tasks the robots must perform has a couple of steps. The first task is to drive a utility vehicle over a short course that requires turning, then the robot must get out of the vehicle and walk, Pratt said. Second is to travel over rough terrain that goes from easy to medium to hard. Third is to move rubble from in front of a doorway and go through the door.

The fourth task is to walk through three successively more difficult-to-open doors. Fifth is to climb a ladder. Sixth is to go to a wall, pick up a tool and use it to cut an access hole through the wall without damaging infrastructure drawn on the wall. Seventh is to find three valves and close them. Eighth is to pull a fire hose a short distance and connect it to a standpipe.

The pretrial favorite may be the superhero robot Valkyrie from NASA. Valkyrie is a 6.2-foot, 275-pound with cameras head to toe. Its sensors include sonar and LIDAR, the multiple cameras help operators can see whatever the robot is doing from multiple viewpoints. It also has a glowing blue circle in its chest. Its goal is not to play Ironman in the next movie but to go to Mars.

Another challenger comes from Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC). Their robot might be considered a heavyweight. CHIMP — the CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform — is 5-foot-2-inches tall and weighs about 400 pounds. It is designed to move on tank-like treads affixed to each of its four limbs. When it needs to operate power tools, turn valves, or otherwise use its arms, CHIMP can stand and roll on its leg treads.

The DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials are free and open to the public -- a public whose experience with robots may tend toward science fiction, Pratt worries, like the Terminator and R2D2.

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