It has only been a few months since DARPA announced the teams competing in its upcoming Robotics Challenge, but already some of the robots are beginning to shape up. Take, for example, the exotic looking CHIMP robot built by a team at Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center. CHIMP (CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform) features tank-like treads on its arms and legs for tackling the bumpy terrain it will encounter as part of the challenge. The idea is to take advantage of both legged and wheeled locomotion, allowing the robot to scoot around low to the ground but stand up when necessary.
"When we walk or stand, our brains are actively controlling our balance all of the time," Tony Stentz, NREC director and the Tartan Rescue Team Leader, said in a statement. While famous bipedal robots like Honda's Asimo do a good job of replicating this behavior in structured environments like office buildings, it's a different story when they're faced with a steep, rocky hill. The CHIMP's unusual approach to locomotion should allow it to rapidly overcome these obstacles, even if it is only stable in a static way.
NREC's Tartan Rescue team is one of seven teams developing their own hardware and software from the ground up specifically for the DARPA Robotics Challenge. Each of those seven teams is taking a different approach to the design and functionality of their robots. A second group of teams will use a version of Boston Dynamics' humanoid robot Atlas. One thing that all of the robots participating in the competition will share in common is that they're remote-controlled by people. "Humans provide high-level control, while the robot provides low-level reflexes and self-protective behaviors," said Stentz. "This enables CHIMP to be highly capable without the complexity associated with a fully autonomous robot. In a pinch, it can do anything."
The harsh reality for sci-fi fans is that today's artificial intelligence hasn't come far enough for robots to carry out chains of highly complex tasks without human assistance. An operator will control CHIMP using a keyboard and mouse at a workstation consisting of a large monitor displaying multiple video feeds from the robot's cameras, and software with shortcuts to easily shift from manual to autonomous control. The robot's sensors will generate a texture-mapped 3D model of its environment, enabling the operator to visualize the robot's position relative to its surroundings.
A nice side-effect of building the robot is the development of new technologies, such as the proprietary drive joints [pictured below] seen in its arms and legs that possess near-human strength and dexterity, can be implemented in a diverse range of robots such as those intended for manufacturing. That way, even if CHIMP doesn't take home the challenge's $2 million dollar top prize the extensive R&D undertaken to build it should prove worthwhile. In the coming weeks and months we're expecting to learn more about the other teams' robots. If all goes well, robots like those developed for the challenge will one day take the place of people in life-threatening circumstances.
Images: Carnegie Mellon University/Tartan Rescue