IHMC robotics team looks to make history at DARPA Challenge

The Pensacola MESS Hall will carry the live stream of the competition next week during themed robotics week

Cutline: Atlas robot, built by Boston Dynamics with software and controls by IHMC. (Photos by William Howell, IHMC)

The robotics team from the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition leaves this weekend for what promises to be a historic milestone in the science of making machines move and think like humans.

The DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals, to be held June 5-6 in Pomona, Calif., is sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It will test 25 teams from around the world in a challenge course designed to emulate a disaster area where humans could not safely go. IHMC’s team will be using the 6-foot-tall Atlas robot, built by Boston Dynamics but with the all-important controlling software designed by IHMC researchers.

The winning team will bring home $2 million from DARPA, which will go to further robotics research. The second-place team will win $1 million.

“It’s been a lot of non-stop work, but we’re ready to go,” said Doug Stephen, one of the computer scientists on the project for IHMC.

TeamIHMCsmFor years, movies and television shows have portrayed bipedal robots as virtually flawless, fast-moving, self-thinking units. But the reality has lagged far behind that characterization. The DARPA Robotics Challenge was designed to push the science and engineering to the next level.

In recent weeks, IHMC’s Atlas, nicknamed “Running Man,” has stepped up to the occasion, performing well on the tasks it will face in the finals, including driving a car, walking over a debris field, opening doors, cutting a hole in a wall, turning a valve for a fire hose and climbing stairs.

The finals require the robots to think for themselves to a large degree and perform the eight tasks in 60 minutes or less — on battery power, without a safety line, and with limited communications with their handlers. This week, IHMC’s machine finished the practice course well within the time frame.

“I am unconditionally proud of our robotics team and hope that the robot fates smile upon them in Pomona,” said IHMC CEO and director Ken Ford. “They are a terrific group of young engineers and computer scientists.”

In the first two rounds of the Robotics Challenge in 2013, IHMC placed first in the virtual (computer simulation) trials, and second in the field trials, thanks in large part to the advanced computer software IHMC developed, organizers said.

Other teams in next week’s finals come from some of the most advanced robotics programs in the country, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lockheed Martin, and Carnegie Mellon University, as well as several teams from Japan, South Korea, China and Germany.

You can watch the hometown team at the Pensacola MESS Hall on Friday and Saturday.

The MESS Hall will have the live stream of the challenge on at the museum, which is marking Robotics Week May 31-June 6.

Megan Pratt, director of the MESS Hall, said there will be specially themed robotics activities, as well as workshops. Pratt’s husband, Jerry, is a member of the IHMC’s Atlas team.

“There are crowds watching (at the venue), it’s a fun contest,” Megan Pratt said. “The robots move very slowly. Even baseball is faster, but its fun and we’ll have activities you can work on.”

“The robots are completely untethered” during the competition, she said. “There is no power supply on board and they use hydraulics to move.”

One of the robotics workshops at the MESS Hall that will include investigating how robots move through hydraulics, part of Pratt’s efforts to tie DARPA back to the principles of hands-on science education the MESS Hall is built around.

Watch one of Atlas’ trials here