100 Days Left to DRC in Miami…

The title says it all – in 100 days, at least 13 teams will gather in Miami December 20-21, 2013 for the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC).  Teams will show their robots performing eight events from driving a utility vehicle, clearing debris, climbing ladders, turning valves and to attaching fire hoses.  Here’s a “teaser” video showing our team’s state-of-readiness; we have put in a lot of work over the past 11-months but still have a lot of work left…

Why a DRC?  The DRC is about disaster response and humanitarian assistance. The tragic thing about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in 2011 was that if valves and switches could have been activated at the earliest stages of the meltdown, much of the nuclear catastrophe would have been prevented.  Radiation was too high for anyone to activate these valves and switches. Furthermore, wired and wireless connections were compromised.  So everyone asked where were the robots?  The sad thing is that existing robots were simply not capable of activating, let alone reaching, such valves and switches.  Thus the DRC attempts to have these technology gaps addressed, using the Challenge as a catalyst.  On the eve of the 12th year since 9/11, disasters, whether accidental, natural, or intentional, is a stark reminder that mitigation concerns everyone.

October 23, 2012 Kickoff:  About 11-months ago, 30+ teams from various tracks were commissioned by DARPA to address the Challenge.  On July 11, 2013, down-selection whittled this number to 13 teams: seven were given the Boston Dynamics Atlas robot to use and six were allowed to continue using their own robot design.  I’m happy to say that our team (DRC-Hubo) was one of the six…

T minus 100 Days (T-100 Days): In about 15-weeks, team DRC-Hubo will start packing its trailer and driving 2-3 days from Philadelphia to Miami.  15-weeks may sound like a lot of time to some, but pragmatically it’s hard to get work done during Thanksgiving and the year-end Holidays; there are final exams at universities, holiday shopping and travel – and snowstorms in the Northeast.  With this mind, we continue to accelerate our efforts now to provide some buffer time later.

Verification Stage: The “teaser” video above is a result of a “verification” stage performed during the summer.  Called V&V (verification-and-validation), engineers assign a first phase to assess (verify) their design’s performance.  This phase is followed by a second one (validation) where performance is measured by non-designers.  The net effect is to ensure the design performs event specifications as engineered.  In these last 100 days, team DRC-Hubo is entering the validation phase.

I use the “smartphone and apps” as an analogy for our team’s approach.  The robot (nicknamed DiRC, pronounced “derk”) is like the “smartphone” and events are “apps”.  You want ladder-climbing, then launch the associated app, and DiRC executes the event.  You want vehicle driving, load that app, and our robot drives the utility vehicle.  Our team (led by Drexel) is composed of 8 universities with each school developing an “app” (8 of them) for DiRC provided by KAIST/Rainbow.

Unlike other teams that use a “not invented here” mindset, I feel our “app” analogy promotes “crowdsourcing” to let best practices emerge.  This helps accelerate design, reduce engineering burden and lessen risk.  Time will tell if our multi-university and international collaborative “invented together” approach will succeed… we have 100-days left to do so!  I’d love to see how the other teams are doing… and gauge if we’re on track, behind or ahead.

God speed!

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About Paul Oh

I'm Paul Oh, a robotics professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and lead for team DRC-Hubo. I founded the Drexel Autonomous Systems Lab (DASL) in 2000 and serve as its director: http://dasl.mem.drexel.edu. DASL has participated in disaster response and worked with first responders to develop technologies since 2001.
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