Meet the Amazing Robots That Will Compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge

Over the next two years, robotics will be revolutionized, and here's how it's going to happen

5 min read

Meet the Amazing Robots That Will Compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge


Wow. I mean, seriously, wow. We've been incredibly excited to see the progress that Boston Dynamics has been making on ATLAS in preparation for the DARPA Robotics Challenge, but we had no idea what to expect from the challenge's Track A teams, each of whom will be designing and building their own robot with capabilities comparable to what we've seen ATLAS do.

Today, October 24, is opening day for the DARPA Robotics Challenge, or DRC. The press release sums it up nicely: "over the next two years, teams will compete to develop and put to the test hardware and software designed to enable robots to assist humans in emergency response when a disaster strikes."

The first half of this is the hardware: DARPA is promising that an "advanced variation" of ATLAS (which is what the above picture is showing) will be ready to go by June of 2013, and will be provided to the advancing Track B and C teams (see our previous post on the DRC for more details on the tracks).

As for the simulation software (pictured above), OSRF has been working very, very hard, and the DRC Simulator is currently available in beta version 1.0. Here's what the press release has to say about it:

Over time, [the Simulator] will be increasingly populated with models of robots, perception sensors and field environments, and function as a cloud-based, real-time, operator-interactive virtual test bed that uses physics-based models of inertia, actuation, contact and environment dynamics. With the cooperation of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Simulator will be rigorously validated, meaning users can confidently leverage it as a resource to test software. 

“The DRC Simulator is going to be one of DARPA’s legacies to the robotics community,” said Gill Pratt, DARPA program manager for the DRC. “One of DARPA’s goals for the Challenge is to catalyze robotics development across all fields so that we as a community end up with more capable, more affordable robots that are easier to operate. The value of a cloud-based simulator is that it gives talent from any location a common space to train, design, test and collaborate on ideas without the need for expensive hardware and prototyping. That opens the door to innovation.” 

Remember, the DRC Simulator will be the focus of the Track B (funded) and Track C (unfunded) teams, and whoever does the best will receive one of six ATLAS robots after the first virtual challenge event to continue on to compete with real hardware.

Anyone can apply for Track C, but the Track B funded teams are as follows:

  • Lockheed Martin – Advanced Technology Laboratories
  • RE2
  • University of Kansas
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • TRAC Labs
  • University of Washington
  • Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC)
  • Ben-Gurion University
  • NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory 
  • TORC Robotics

Meanwhile, the Track A teams are busy building their own hardware, which may end up being the most exciting part of the DRC. Seven teams will be taking part, and here's what they're working on:

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) – National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) 

CMU-NREC proposed to develop the CHIMP (CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform) robot for executing complex tasks in dangerous, degraded, human-engineered environments. CHIMP will have near-human form factor, work-envelope, strength and dexterity to work effectively in such environments, yet avoid the need for complex control by maintaining static rather than dynamic stability. 




Drexel University

Drexel University’s design focuses on a mature, open-architecture, bipedal robot called Hubo. Each member on Drexel’s team will be equipped with a stock Hubo, a complete, full-sized humanoid. This infrastructure will catalyze a multi-university effort to “hit the ground running” and successfully address all anticipated DRC events in a “program-test-perfect” model.





Raytheon proposed to construct Guardian, a new, self-powered, lightweight, robust, dexterous humanoid robot that will build on the team’s experience with human-scale exoskeletons. The Guardian robot will expand its Exoskeleton (XOS) concept, introducing innovative technologies such as large range of motion, high specific torque/power actuators and a rapidly modulated fluid supply for overall power efficiency.  





SCHAFT Inc. proposed a bipedal robot based on mature hardware and software designed for its existing HRP-2 robot. SCHAFT will create an Intelligent Robot Kernel in which it will combine the necessary software modules for recognition, planning, motion generation, motion control and a user interface. The group will divide into three teams to execute the tasks: hardware design, software integration and scenario testing. 




Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech proposed to develop THOR, a Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot, which will be state-of-the-art, light, agile and resilient with perception, planning and human interface technology that infers a human operator’s intent, allowing seamless, intuitive control across the autonomy spectrum. The team will emphasize three essential themes in developing THOR: hardware resilience, robust autonomy and intuitive operation. 




NASA Johnson Space Center

We didn't get a pic for this one, so here's our best guess.

NASA Johnson Space Center proposed to develop a next-generation humanoid robot and control paradigm capable of performing dynamic, dexterous and perception-intensive tasks in a variety of scenarios. NASA JSC’s development approach will apply successful practices that have been used to develop multiple generations of Robonaut and related technologies in collaboration with academic, commercial and other government partners. 




NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

NASA JPL proposed to build RoboSimian, a simian-inspired, limbed robot that will use deliberate and stable operations to complete challenging tasks under supervised teleoperation. The team will employ design methods, system elements and software algorithms that have already been successfully demonstrated in JPL’s existing robots. RoboSimian will use its four general-purpose limbs and hands, capable of both mobility and manipulation, to achieve passively stable stances, create multi-point anchored connections to supports such as ladders, railings and stair treads, and brace itself during forceful manipulation operations.




And these are just the Track A hardware platforms. There's also Track D, which invites teams from around the world to develop disaster robots to compete in the Challenge without any funding from DARPA. Track D embraces a much wider variety of hardware, including different powerplants and "robots  of any form, not just humanoids." Now is an appropriate time to activate your imagination.

We're really hoping that all of these teams will be as open as possible as they go about building and testing their robots, because the simultaneous development of seven platforms of this size and complexity is, as far as we know, totally unprecedented in the robotics world.

If all this seems pretty cool to you, remember that the registration for Tracks C and D (which can actually get you one of these robots if you do well enough in Track C versus the funded Track B teams) has just opened today at the DRC website. You've got eight months to nail it in simulation before the first DRC event, the Virtual Robotics Challenge, takes place in June of 2013, followed by the first hardware challenge in December of next year.

Program your robots to hold onto your hats for you, folks: this is going to be awesome.

[ DARPA Robotics Challenge ]

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