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Creating heroes for the DARPA Robotics Challenge

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Two robots respond to a disaster

ECE students are working on two teams that will compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge — Team THOR and Team ViGIR.

ECE students have joined on multidisciplinary teams to create humanoid robots that are more versatile than any currently roaming the halls of research.

Two teams qualified to compete in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge (DRC). This challenge, inspired by Japan’s Fukushima nuclear crisis, asks researchers to create robots capable of going into dangerous situations so humans do not have to risk their lives.

According to the challenge announcement, its primary technical goal “is to develop ground robots capable of executing complex tasks in dangerous, degraded, human-engineered environments.” The robots should be able to use standard human equipment. The challenge requires a robot to complete all of the following tasks:

  1. Get into a standard human vehicle and drive it to a specified location.
  2. Get out of the vehicle and travel across rubble.
  3. Clear obstacles from a doorway.
  4. Open the door, and enter the building.
  5. Find a leaking pipe and close the associated valve.
  6. Reconnect a hose or cable.
  7. Climb a ladder.
  8. Grab a tool from the site, break through a concrete wall and exit.

The robot will be allowed to communicate with a human operator, but the bandwidth will be limited and the signal will be intermittent. There may not be enough bandwidth for a robot to reliably send video or to be in constant contact with its operator.

Contestants will compete in one of four tracks. Seven track A teams were selected and given funding to build and program a robot to do the tasks. Track B funds contestants only to program the robot. The best of the track B teams will be given a robot and will compete with track A teams during the final competition. Tracks C and D are similar to tracks A and B, but without funding.

ECE graduate students are working on the mechanical engineering team in Virginia Tech’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa), led by Dennis Hong. RoMeLa is partnering with researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Harris Corporation, and Robotis Corporation to form Team THOR. They will be competing in track A. The RoMeLa laboratory has won RoboCup, an international soccer robot competition, two years in a row with their humanoid robot, CHARLI.

One of this year’s senior design options allows ECE Seniors to work on Team ViGIR, which will be competing in track B. Team ViGIR includes researchers from TORC Robotics and Technische Universität Darmstadt. In 2007, researchers from TORC and Virginia Tech formed one of only three teams to successfully complete the DARPA Urban Challenge, which required them to build an autonomous vehicle capable of traveling over 60 miles of on- and off-road urban terrain in under six hours.

Good luck, Team ViGIR and Team THOR!