Public Safety & Homeland Security

5 Robots That May Rescue You From Natural Disasters

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is conducting a global competition to design robots that can perform dangerous rescue work.

by Leslie D'Monte, Mint / June 2, 2015
CHIMP is a four-limbed human-size robot that’s designed to move on tank-like treads fixed to each of its four limbs. DARPA Robotics Challenge

(TNS) — When a powerful earthquake in March 2011 triggered a tsunami that devastated Japan’s Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant and raised radiation to alarming levels, authorities contemplated sending in robots first to inspect the facility, assess the damage and fix problems where possible. But the robots could not live up to the task and eventually, humans had to complete most of the hazardous work.

Ever since, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency under the U.S. Department of Defense, has been working to improve the quality of robots. It is now conducting a global competition to design robots that can perform dangerous rescue work after nuclear accidents, earthquakes and tsunamis.

The robots are tested for their ability to open doors, turn valves, connect hoses, use hand tools to cut panels, drive vehicles, clear debris and climb a stair ladder — all tasks that are relatively simple for humans, but very difficult for robots.

This year, 25 of the world’s top robotics organizations will compete on June 5 and 6 for a total of $3.5 million in prizes, as they attempt simulated disaster response at Fairplex in Pomona, California. While 12 teams are from the U.S., there are five from Japan, four from the European Union, three from South Korea, and one from Hong Kong.

To qualify for DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) finals, teams had to demonstrate that their robots can engage an emergency shut-off switch, get up from a prone position, walk for 10 meters without falling, pass over a barrier and rotate a circular valve 360 degrees.

During the competition, the robots will attempt a circuit of consecutive physical tasks. Over the two days, there will be progressively less communications between robots and their operators. The winning team will receive $2 million, while the No. 2 and No. 3 will get $1 million and $500,000 each.

DARPA hopes the technologies emerging from the competition will transform the field of robotics and promote development of robots featuring task-level autonomy that can operate in hazardous, degraded conditions common in disaster zones.

The participants, representing some of the most advanced robotics research and development organizations in the world, are collaborating and innovating on a very short timeline to develop the hardware, software, sensors and human-machine control interfaces that will enable their robots to complete a series of challenge tasks selected by DARPA for their relevance to disaster response.

Those who choose to attend the event, which is free and open to the public, can also observe human-like robots during a long-endurance walkathon; put their own home-built robots through their paces on a test course; earn a Robot Driver’s License; see demonstrations of an electric robotic cheetah that runs and jumps over obstacles; observe demonstrations of modular snake and spider robots while they climb poles and navigate cluttered terrain; and even learn programming and robot hardware design from university experts and component developers.

Here are profiles of five robots from the 25 teams that have made it to the finals:

CHIMP

Designed by the Tartan rescue team from the Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center, CHIMP is a four-limbed human-size robot that, when standing, is 5-foot-2-inches tall and weighs about 400 pounds. It is primarily not a walking robot, but one designed to move on tank-like treads fixed to each of its four limbs.

When it needs to operate power tools, turn valves, or otherwise use its arms, CHIMP can stand and roll on its leg treads. The robot’s long front arms act have a wingspan almost 10 feet, giving it an ape-like appearance. The team is led by Tony Stentz, director of the National Robotics Engineering Center and a research professor at CMU’s Robotics Institute.

Sidd Srinivasa, who is the “Grasping and Dextrous Manipulation Lead” of the 10-member core team, earned a Bachelors in Technology (B.Tech) in mechanical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, and an MS and PhD in Robotics from CMU.

Momaro

This robot has been specifically designed by the team NimbRo Rescue from the University of Bonn in Germany, to the requirements of the DARPA Robotics Challenge. It consists of an anthropomorphic, or human-like, upper body fitted on a flexible hybrid mobile base.

Momaro has four legs which end in pairs of directly-driven, steerable wheels. This allows for omnidirectional driving on rugged terrains and allows for adjustment of the height of the upper body. To overcome larger obstacles and climb stairs, individual legs are lifted and the robot makes steps.

Momaro+disaster+robotThe upper body consists of two adult-sized anthropomorphic arms with seven degrees of freedom each. The robot grippers have four individually controllable fingers with two joints each. The upper body can be twisted relative to the base, to extend the manipulation workspace.

Momaro is equipped with a sensor head consisting of a continuously rotating 3D laser scanner, which produces a spherical field-of-view, eight color cameras with an omnidirectional field-of-view, three full HD color cameras for a panoramic operator view, and a top-down, wide-angle camera. In addition, the robot can sense joint positions and torques and is equipped with an inertial measurement unit.

Walkman

It is a humanoid robot recently developed by Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (Italian Institute of Technology) and University of Pisa in Italy, within the European funded project WALKMAN (www.walk-man.eu).

The project is a four-year research program which started in October 2013 and aims to developing a humanoid robot for disaster response.

Walkman stands for Whole Body Adaptive Locomotion and Manipulation, underscoring its main research goal.

The prototype Walkman platform is an adult-size humanoid with a height of 1.85 meters, arm span of 2 meters and weight of 118kg. The robot draws power from a built-in 2KWh battery unit. Its body has 33 degrees of freedom (DOF) actuated by high-power electric motors and equipped with intrinsic elasticity that gives to the robot physical interaction capabilities.

The robot’s perception system includes sensors, a head module equipped with a stereo-vision system and a rotating 3D laser scanner. Extra color cameras mounted at fixed orientation provide additional coverage of the locomotion and manipulation space. Protective soft covers mounted along the body will permit the robot to withstand impacts including those occurred during falling incidents. The software interface of the robot is based on the YARP middleware. YARP stands for Yet Another Robot Platform.

Helios (Atlas)

Much of the software developed by Team MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has been integrated into the Drake toolbox and is freely available.

The team has created planning tools that understand the robot’s physical limits, allowing a human operator to review future robot actions to verify their safety.

A central component of the system is an inverse kinematics (IK) engine that computes the necessary robot joint angles to achieve some real-world objectives such as positioning the robot’s hand at a given point in space, while maintaining balance of the robot and avoiding collisions with other objects.

Team MIT has developed several new algorithms for footstep planning such as the IRIS algorithm that can compute large convex regions of safe terrain. Balancing, walking, and manipulation are accomplished with a controller.

The team has also developed an estimation tool which combines information from the robot’s joint position sensors, its onboard accelerometer and gyroscopes, and its laser range-finder to determine the robot’s state and enable accurate, repeatable foot placement, and even allow the robot to accurately track its state without any contact with the ground.

The custom user interface integrates information from the robot’s state estimator, the laser scanner, and the robot’s onboard cameras and force sensors to give a human operator a detailed view of the world.

Thormang 2

The robot being developed by Seoul-based Robotis Ltd is a 160cm-tall humanoid robot named Thormang (Version 2) that weighs 60kg.

The company had participated in DRC trials as a team member of Team THOR that used THOR-OP (also known as: Thormang 1). Based on that experience, Robotis built a new team called Team Robotis comprising researchers from the company itself along with those from the Korea Tech University and Korea Robotics Society.

Thormang 2 is the upgraded version of Thormang 1. It is much stronger, faster and more stable than the previous version, although its height and weight are similar to the previous model. Modularity is its main feature.

©2015 the Mint (New Delhi). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.