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The DARPA Challenge and CMU

on Wed, 05/29/2013 - 22:14

In 2002, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced the DARPA Grand Challenge, a robotic road race through the Mojave Desert starting in Barstow, California, and ending just beyond the Nevada border. Part of DARPA’s mission, as outlined by the United States Congress, is “to generate groundbreaking research and development so that future robotics can perform the most hazardous activities in future disaster response operations, in tandem with their human counterparts, in order to reduce casualties, avoid further destruction, and save lives.” Sponsoring the Grand Challenge was a way to foster that goal, while offering both prestige and a one million dollar prize to the winner of the competition.

Many within the robotics industry initially questioned the wisdom of participating in the Grand Challenge, doubting the potential of finishing the race as well as the fact that one million dollars would not be enough to cover the costs of building the necessary robotic vehicle. One “believer” in the contest, however, was William “Red” Whittaker, a chief architect of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. In the book Almost Human: Making Robots That Think (W.W. Norton, 2010), journalist Lee Gutkind details Whittaker’s refitting of a 1986 Humvee into the flagship of Team Red for the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge. Although the futuristic Humvee, named Sandstorm, travelled further than any of its fellow robots, it was unable to finish the race after toppling over an embankment twenty-three minutes into the competition.

The failure did not deter Red Whittaker, as the robotic engineer entered two vehicles in the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge—a redesigned Sandstorm and a newer Humvee named H1ghlander. The idea was the old “tortoise and the hare” approach, with H1ghlander being the faster of the twin robots, while Sandstorm was the “slow and steady” participant. Both vehicles suffered during the competition, however, but still managed to finish in second (Sandstorm) and third (H1ghlander) place. In 2007, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency decided to switch things up a bit, substituting the heavy terrain of the Mojave Desert with a simulated urban setting replete with traffic lights and merging traffic. Although Red Whittaker was not involved in the resulting “Urban Challenge,” Carnegie Mellon University’s Tartan Racing Team was able to finish first with their redesigned 2007 Chevy Tahoe.

For their next contest, DARPA has decided to spotlight emergency response scenarios, and CMU is once again participating in this redesigned Robotics Challenge. The Tartan Rescue Team, led by Tony Stentz, director of the University’s National Robotics Engineering Center, has nicknamed their creation CHIMP—standing for “CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform—and the robot does indeed have characteristics comparable to that of a monkey. The creation does not walk per say, but maneuvers instead on rubberized tracks attached to the bottom of its four limbs, much like a tank. Similar a chimpanzee, meanwhile, CHIMP can also operate on just two limbs, leaving its “hands” available to open valves or operate tools.

The DARPA Robotics Challenge is divided into three segments—the Virtual Robotics Challenge in June 2013, the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials in December 2013, and the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals in December 2014. The first two events are designed as “test runs,” enabling participants to fine-tune their creations for the finals. Given the success that Carnegie Mellon University has experienced in past DARPA “challenges,” CHIMP will no doubt be fully ready by the time December 2014 finally rolls around.

Anthony Letizia (May 29, 2013)

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