(image via IEEE Spectrum)

At the DARPA Robotics Challenge in Pomona, California, South Korean Team KAIST emerged victorious, taking home US $2 million with its humanoid DRC-HUBO. The robot annihilated 22 contenders by completing a series of 8 tasks in record time. It was one of three to have completed all tasks successfully.


DRC-HUBO opening valve (image courtesy of IEEE Spectrum)

Due to recent natural disasters, DARPA has become increasingly eager for robotic emergency responders. Like the U.S. Navy’s SAFFiR, participants at this year’s Robotics Challenge were asked to build a robot that could ideally work alongside emergency responders and execute a number of difficult tasks untethered. The tasks included climbing up stairs, walking over rubble, driving a car, getting inside and outside of a car, opening a door, releasing a valve, drilling a large circle through a wall and unplugging and reconnecting a cable into a socket.

Professor Jun Jo Oh, the director of Team KAIST, said bipedal walking for robots is still challenging. To overcome this hurdle, the team fixed wheels on DRC-Hubo’s knees, allowing him to switch between bipedal walking and rolling with a lower center of gravity, making it less likely that he would fall.  Other custom features include over 30 motors that can peak at 30 amperes, environment scanning only when necessary, a rotating torso, long arms for easier task execution and running on the Linux operating system. The robot was built with the Robotics Challenge in mind and Oh estimates the cost of building a humanoid is between $500,000 and $1 million. 


Drilling Task (image courtesy of DARPA)

Team KAIST has worked on the HUBO design for years. Professor Oh has overseen the development of four generations of HUBO. A month prior to this year’s competition, the team trained with the robot outdoors in a variety of weather conditions, including extreme sun and high winds. Oh said HUBO’s operators also needed to get comfortable pushing the humanoid to its limit, and this mentality was likely a huge factor to the team’s victory.

DRC-HUBO successfully finished all tasks in an impressive 44:22. Many other teams competed, including competitors from Japan, Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, South Korea and the U.S. Only two other robots successfully completed all tasks: U.S. IHMC’s Running Man and U.S. Tartan Rescue’s CHIMP. CHIMP did fall down while performing certain tasks, but it was the only robot to get back up and try again. The teams took home US $2 million, $1 million and $500,000, respectively.


Team KAIST celebrating victory (image courtesy of DARPA)

As expected, robotics technology is not yet developed enough to successfully build a fully biped, untethered robot that maintains perfect balance at all times. Even humans lose their balance and fall down, but for robots, such a fall could result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs. This difficulty in walking, however, made for quite a hilarity at the competition, as robot after robot fell awkwardly and failed to get up. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s RoboSimian even entertained the crowd with (unintentional) dance moves.

DARPA was inspired to develop an emergency responding robot after the disaster in Fukushima, Japan. The organization envisions scenarios where humans and robots can work together to save lives in times of need. DARPA Program Manager and DRC Organizer Gill Pratt said the key factor in robotic responders is flexibility. Each disaster site is different and the needs of victims will change. Having a robot that can adapt quickly can make all of the difference. If you missed the event, check out the highlights here.



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