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Welcome to the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals

We’ve just arrived at the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals in Pomona, Calif. It’s the day before the Finals starts, and the Expo is setting up, teams are testing robots, and DARPA is making sure that the courses are ready to go. We’ll have a detailed post on the rules and course this evening, but the first thing we did was snap the pic above to give you a look at what it’s going to be like. Our first reaction? The overall course is shorter than we expected, and only as challenging as it needs to be: robots will have a real chance at getting through these tasks successfully, and that’s awesome.

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DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals: Know Your Robots

With 24 teams competing in the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals, it’s easy to lose track of things. Which team has the white ATLAS that is not IHMC or WPI-CMU? How many teams are from Germany? What’s the name of that Japanese robot that looks like a spaghetti of wires?

Confused already? Don’t worry, here’s something we made with our bare hands to make your life (and ours) easier: All of the DRC teams and their robots—along with some helpful specs—in one single handy poster-size image. Print it, read it, memorize it and you’ll be ready to watch the Finals.

The actual competition will happen on Friday and Saturday, but Evan and I will be posting stories and videos starting tomorrow (Thursday). Follow us on Twitter for the latest updates, and if you’re coming to Pomona, we’ll see you there!

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WALK-MAN Team Built Brand New, Highly Custom Robot for DRC Finals

While some DRC teams received fancy ATLAS robots from DARPA and other teams decided to adapt existing platforms (HUBO and HRP-2, for example) to compete in the Finals, some groups set out to build completely new robots. One of these is Team WALK-MAN from the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), whose most recent robotic creations include HyQ and COMAN. Before departing to the DRC Finals site in Pomona, Calif., Nikos Tsagarakis, a senior researcher at IIT and WALK-MAN Project Coordinator, spoke with us about his team’s highly customized robot, its mains capabilities, and how it compares to ATLAS.

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Pre-DRC Finals Video Post: What to Expect from the World's Most Sophisticated Robots

We’ve been collecting DARPA Robotics Challenge-related videos for the last several months, and this post is an attempt to put a bunch of them together in a way that showcases the current state of the robots of the DRC Finals just before the competition starts. Looking through these will show you how capable many of the teams are right now (or within a few weeks or so), providing a metric for where your expectations should be for the competition itself. Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future results. But as you watch, these videos will give you an idea of what’s fast, what’s slow, what robots seem to be doing well, and what robots seem to be doing amazing.

Note that these videos are at least a week or two out of date, and they’re totally biased towards teams that have been, you know, actually posting videos on YouTube, so there might be robots that are doing equally well but you won’t see them here. Nonetheless, this is the best cross-section of pre-event capabilites we’ve got, and it should give you a pretty good sense of what to expect when the Finals kick off on Friday. 

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Lockheed Martin's Team TROOPER Sets Expectations for DRC Finals

With the DRC Finals kicking off this week, competing teams have been practicing hard to get their robots ready for competition. A few weeks ago, we visited Team TROOPER at Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Laboratories (or more accurately, a nameless and windowless building in an office park somewhere near Philadelphia) to see how they’ve been preparing for the DRC Finals, and what we came back with should give you a good sense of what to expect.

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Soft Actuators Go From Squishy to Stiff (and Back Again)

Soft actuators are appealing for robotics because they’re cheap (made out of plastics or polymers and air), inherent compliant and relatively safe for humans to interact with, and able to adapt themselves to grip a wide range of objects. Being soft does tend to make them by definition bad at being hard, so for those times when you need an actuator with some stiffness, well, that’s just too bad.

Or is it?

Researchers at Technische Universitat Berlin led by Professor Oliver Brock have combined soft pneumatic actuators with a jamming system that results in a variable-stiffness actuator that’s soft when you want and hard when you want.

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Robots Learn to Push Heavy Objects With Their Bodies, Just Like You

The payload of a robot is a well-defined number that usually refers to how much mass its actuators or mobility system can comfortably support. The payload of a human works in a similar way, except that sometimes we can cheat, by offloading the mass of an object to the ground, and moving it purely by overcoming friction and shoving it along. For very heavy objects, doing this involves using the weight and stability of our whole bodies as well as our muscles, and robots are learning to do this, too.

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Video Friday: Aerial Manipulator, Car-Removal Robot, Robotic Limbs, and More From ICRA 2015

All this week, we’ve been at ICRA in Seattle. A bunch of you are probably here too, and if you’re not, we’re sorry, because it’s awesome. The last few days we’ve bounced around as many different sessions as we can, and we have all kinds of amaaazing things to write about: what you’ve seen so far is just the start.

Try as we might, we can’t squeeze everything into its own article, so for Video Friday this week, we’re going to post a heaping stack of ICRA videos along with their accompanying abstracts. For you impatient types, we’ll return to normal Video Friday not next week (because it’ll be the first day of the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals), but the week after, if we’re still alive by then.

If you have any questions about these videos, let us know: we have access to all of the accompanying papers, and if we can’t answer your question ourselves, just about all of the authors will be within (non-creepy) grabbing distance for most of today.

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Self-Healing Actuators Make Breaking Your Robot No Big Deal

Robots tend to spend a lot of the time broken. This isn’t just because they break a lot (although they do break a lot), but also because they’re usually difficult and often expensive to fix quickly. Electronics in general is also difficult and expensive to fix, which is why we have fuses: sacrificial components that take one for the team when something goes wrong. At ICRA yesterday, we saw a similar idea intended to protect actuators from damage. This mechanical fuse takes things one step further, however, by being able to heal itself, making a broken robot just like new in a matter of hours.

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IEEE Spectrum's award-winning robotics blog, featuring news, articles, and videos on robots, humanoids, drones, automation, artificial intelligence, and more.
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Erico Guizzo
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Evan Ackerman
Jason Falconer
Angelica Lim

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