Watch JPL's RoboSimian Do Pull-Ups

JPL and other teams are working hard on their DARPA challenge robots

1 min read
Watch JPL's RoboSimian Do Pull-Ups

YES! IT'S STARTING! The DARPA Robotics Challenge is mere months (four months) away, and we're now beginning to get some early looks at progress on those spectacular Track A robots. This is RoboSimian, from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, starting to experiment with hands developed at Stanford.

RoboSimian isn't finished yet, but that's part of what's exciting here. We've been looking forward to seeing videos of the Track A teams developing and testing their hardware prior to the Challenge in December. JPL is particularly interesting because they've decided not to build a humanoid, like most of the rest of the Track A teams. Instead, RoboSimian is more of, well, a simian, a term used most often to refer to apes, although technically we humans are simians too.

In particular, 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.

It looks like RoboSimian is going to have no trouble with ladder climbing or manipulation, and if it ends up walking around on four legs instead of two, that could significantly simplify some of the walking challenges. So the question is, what disadvantages does a form like this have over a more traditional humanoid robot, if any? We may have to wait until the end of the year to find out, but in the mean time, we're very much looking forward to more videos like these from all of the DRC teams.

[ JPL ]

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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

“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.

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

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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