Engineering team to compete in government robotics competition

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A UT engineering research team is developing a robot to compete in a government-sponsored robotics competition that will test the robot’s ability to perform tasks in emergency situations.

The team will compete against other American and international teams in the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency Robotics Challenge on Dec. 21.

Engineering assistant professor Luis Sentis is leading the team, which is collaborating with NASA to develop Valkyrie, a robot designed to complete eight tasks often needed in disaster scenarios.

Engineering graduate student Chien-Liang Fok said the challenge is important because building robots that can act as first responders in disaster scenarios can help keep people safe.

“Robots can do things and go places that real first responders simply cannot go due to the dangerous environment,” Fok said.

Disasters such as the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan prompted the U.S. government to set aside money for competitions such as the DARPA Robotics Challenge, Sentis said.

“Existing technology is only able to provide observation of dangerous environments,” engineering graduate student Nicholas Paine said. “If the DARPA Robotics Challenge is successful, the robots developed for the challenge may be the first iteration of a technology capable of not only observing dangerous environments but also acting in them to prevent loss of life and property.”

Paine said each task is actually made up of many individual functions. Paine said when Valkryie climbs a ladder, it must do multiple individual actions such as lifting its left leg and grasping an object with its right hand, Paine’s said his role in the project is to ensure that when individual commands are given to Valkyrie’s 44 joints, the actions are performed successfully and accurately.

“DARPA set a very high bar in the task list they chose for the challenge,” Paine said. “At the beginning of the challenge, most of these tasks had never been completed by any robot.”

Paine said he thinks cost issues will prevent robots like Valkyrie from being used by entities other than governments and large corporations.

“These robots are very high-end machines, not hobbies,” Sentis said. “Each of them costs probably $4 to $5 million.”

Paine said some companies, such as Rethink Robotics and Unbounded Robotics, are trying to produce more affordable robots, but right now, these robots have limited mobility and are best suited for use in structured environments, such as office buildings. In the next five to 10 years, Paine said these kinds of robots will be used more widely.

Fok said in the future, robots will have more important roles, including assisting first responders in disaster scenarios. He said people will probably take their presence and services for granted in the coming future.

“At 20 years, I hope that some of the technology being developed for the DRC will be able to walk, crawl and climb its way out of the lab,” Paine said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the agency. It is the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency.