CSAIL team advances to finals of DARPA Robotics Challenge

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In December a team from MIT advanced to the final round of the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), a Department of Defense-sponsored competition in which researchers from around the world operate robots to complete a series of tasks that include walking on rocky terrain, turning valves, opening doors, and driving cars.

Led by Principal Investigator Seth Teller and Russ Tedrake, the MIT team finished fourth in a field of 16, and will now compete for a chance at the $2 million prize in the finals, tentatively slated for December 2014.

The competition is intended to promote robotic innovation for disaster relief, and was motivated by events such as the Fukushima hydrogen explosion. The ultimate goal is to develop a dexterous mobile robot that is able to traverse disaster zones and perform useful tasks, with minimal instruction from remote human operators.

Speaking at a celebratory reception in January, team leader Seth Teller talked about the great strides that the team - and the competition - has made in the last three years.

"The robots that existed in 2011, when used in the field, couldn't do much more than enter the building and use a camera to look around, or perhaps poke at objects with a primitive gripper, and even this they could do only while being driven continuously by a human operator," said Teller, a professor in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and a principal investigator at CSAIL.

"But with the DARPA competition we suddenly have access to much more powerful and dexterous physical machines.  DARPA challenges us to make these robots perform useful tasks in unstructured settings, even when the communication link between the human operator and the robot is highly degraded. In other words, our robots must be able to move and handle objects on their own, if only for brief intervals."



While a few of the other teams built their own robots, MIT was one of many groups that opted to compete in “Track B,” the software development portion that involves using the existing Atlas robot manufactured by Boston Dynamics (a robotics company co-founded by former CSAIL member Marc Raibert).

The latest round featured multiple obstacles to simulate a disaster-response scenario, from sporadic network bandwidth to a windy Florida race car track that made tasks like opening doors particularly troublesome for the robots.

"I'm really excited about the capabilities we've developed for autonomous planning and dynamic control," said Tedrake, an associate professor at EECS. "If the finals challenge us with tasks that have more variability or require the robot to move faster, then I think our approach will really shine."

The December trials followed an initial round of competition in May of 2013, during which teams demonstrated competence in programming robots to step across large gaps in terrain, and to pick up and move a hand-held drill. The “Track B” groups all received the new Atlas robots in August, and have been feverishly working on programming them over the last few months.

The CSAIL-based team has representation from many departments at MIT, including the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Mechanical Engineering, and Aeronautics and Astronautics, and the Center for Ocean Engineering.

For more information on Team MIT, visit http://drc.mit.edu/.
For photos of Team MIT in action, visit http://projects.csail.mit.edu/galleries/main.php?g2_itemId=8289.

Story by Adam Conner-Simons