FIRST and NI Announce New Robot Controller: Smaller, Faster, Super Rugged

National Instruments will provide FIRST teams with a brand new, and much more powerful, control system for their robots

2 min read
Students view next-generation embedded robotics control platform.

FIRST, the popular robotics competition created by Dean Kamen to foster science and engineering, is known to attract thousands of high school students who organize into teams to build robots that can drive around autonomously and shoot balls and discs to score points. Now the teams are getting a new controller that will let them design robots that are even faster, smarter, and stronger.

This morning at the FIRST Championship in St. Louis, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and National Instruments announced a next-generation embedded robotics control platform. Codenamed Athena, the new controller is set to replace the current system, NI’s CompactRIO, in the 2015 season of the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC).

Full technical specs are still under wraps. NI plans to unveil Athena at NI Week on 5-8 August, in Austin. But we spoke with Ray Hsu, manager of K-12 and academic partners programs for NI, to get some more details. Hsu says the new controller is not just an updated CompactRIO; it’s a new design, still based on the NI RIO architecture, but smaller, faster, and less expensive.

And, Hsu, adds, it’s also “super rugged.” That’s because one thing NI learned watching the FIRST teams using its controller is that, as Hsu puts, “Kids will do anything to it.” The controller gets dropped onto the hard floor; tiny metal shavings get into its modules; some teams have even left it in the rain. Athena is designed to better handle this abuse.

the CompactRIO controller

FIRST teams have been using the CompactRIO controller [pictured right] since 2009. A modified version was introduced in 2011. But last year, FIRST, based in Manchester, N.H., announced an open request for proposals for a new controller. The RFP included a host of requirements, based on four years of experience with the existing hardware and feedback from students and mentors. Several vendors submitted proposals, and in the end FIRST decided to stick with NI.

Another Athena improvement is making the system even easier to use. “We wanted to simplify things for rookie teams, to let them get a working robot very, very quickly,” Hsu says. At the same time, however, experienced teams want a more advanced, not a simplified, device. So NI had to make the system modular and expandable. In terms of software, teams will still be able to use LabVIEW, NI’s graphical system design software, to program their robot behaviors. Athena will also support C++ and Java.

As part of its partnership with FIRST, NI will donate the controller and LabVIEW for all existing and new FRC teams. FIRST and NI will start testing Athena next year in preparation to the 2015 season. What will those smart kids be able to do with an even faster, better controller? I guess the real question is, Is there anything they will not be able to do?

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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