Robotics Challenge: Creating the Disaster Response of the Future

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'Collaborative Autonomy'

Many researchers have backed away from the idea of fully autonomous robots. Instead, they are now focusing on the concept of "collaborative autonomy," which means that a robot should ask for help if it is having trouble completing a task. Stryk can imagine the development of call centers for robots in the future, in which a human technical support team helps an army of robotic servants cope with the pitfalls of everyday life.

Researchers will be allowed to communicate with their machines during the challenge in Florida. However, data communication will be limited and patchy, just as it could be in real disasters.

In many cases, humanoid robots do not particularly benefit from human assistance. During robotic training in Christiansburg, Atlas is still relatively clumsy, waving his arms indecisively and hesitating as he places one foot in front of the other while walking. Every movement the engineers are trying to teach Atlas reveals how complex even the simplest human actions can be.

One of the tasks in the Florida challenge is to traverse uneven terrain. For a two-legged robot, each bump, crack and threshold presents a challenge. The robot tirelessly scans the surface with fisheye cameras and laser scanners to calculate where he should place his foot. And even then he still doesn't know whether the surface is elastic, sandy or soft.

Walking Like a Human

Atlas still moves very slowly, because his body is constantly in static equilibrium. This makes it easier to control the robot's movement, but it is also time-consuming.

A person walks differently. He simply allows his body to fall forward and constantly offsets his weight in the next step. The engineers in Darmstadt are working on teaching Atlas this form of movement.

The next task works relatively well, as the robot adjusts his arm with a whirring noise and rotates his wrist until it reaches the right angle. Finally, he grasps a drill with his hand. "This isn't as easy as it looks," explains Stryk's coworker Stefan Kohlbrecher, 33. "The machine can't wobble when it drills. Besides, its fingers have to be able to hit the button correctly."

Another test, probably the most spectacular one, offers more pitfalls. In this one, Atlas is supposed to climb into a buggy and maneuver the vehicle through an obstacle course. During simulation, it becomes apparent that the robot is apt to slide around dangerously on the smooth plastic seats. To counteract the movement, Atlas has to hold onto the chassis while driving the buggy.

During the field test, the researchers discovered that the robot, with its bulky hydraulic tail, doesn't actually fit behind the wheel. Now he will have to sit in the passenger seat, hold the steering wheel and step on the gas pedal while maneuvering his leg around the gearshift.

"Sometimes completely banal things cause problems," says Kohlbrecher. For instance, the ladder Atlas is supposed to climb is tilted at such a sharp angle that Atlas can't hold onto the rungs without pitching forward. To address the problem, the developers obtained permission from DARPA to provide Atlas with an alternate hand. Instead of using carefully guided fingers, the robot will rely on a simple hook.

Despite numerous glitches, the Darmstadt robotics experts are optimistic, given their experiences in dealing with the challenges of everyday robotics operations. They have also consistently performed at their best in competitions.

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