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Robots at Pentagon-sponsored competition for disaster relief, not war

By TOM AVRIL | The Philadelphia Inquirer (Tribune News Service) | Published: May 28, 2015

When a violent earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in March 2011, emergency responders needed to vent hydrogen gas from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant before it reached dangerous levels.

But radiation exposure kept workers from finishing the job, and the gas fueled explosions in two reactor buildings.

Could a robot have done a better job?

That question is a primary driver of a two-day competition sponsored next month by the research arm of the Pentagon. Twenty-five teams from around the world have programmed robots to tackle eight tasks of the sort that one might encounter in disaster response.

Among the entrants is Leo, a 400-pound, two-legged behemoth that was customized by engineers from Lockheed Martin, with help from the University of Pennsylvania and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Penn engineers are contributing to a second robot as well, partnering with the University of California Los Angeles.

There is no radiation exposure in the competition, not that it would be a problem for the robots. The real challenge for these mechanized helpers will be more basic, said Gill Pratt, contest manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Staying upright.

"You should expect to see a lot of the robots falling down," Pratt said earlier this month. "A lot of failure of various sorts."

The tasks include driving a car, opening a door, shutting off a valve, wielding a power tool to cut through a wall, and clambering across some rubble.

Specialized robots can easily accomplish any one of those tasks, said Kostas Daniilidis, a Penn professor of computer and information science who is working with Lockheed. But not eight.

"Having it all in one creates huge challenges," Daniilidis said.

Each job means a different set of forces acting on a robot's limbs, and a different set of complicated instructions for its internal computers.

In a warehouse in Pennsauken this month, Lockheed team members demonstrated Leo's ability to open a door and walk through.

As a light flashed on its head, the robot turned the door handle with its left hand, then held the door open with its right.

Thud-thud-thud went Leo's blocky feet on the concrete floor.

To create Leo, Lockheed customized and programmed a robot supplied by a company called Boston Dynamics, as did a half-dozen other entrants in the competition. Other teams built their own machines from scratch.

None of the entrants are fully autonomous, or independent. Humans give the broad instructions, such as "shut off valve," and the robots must then find the valve and figure out exactly where to place their appendages in order to grip it.

"Just like a master-apprentice sort of a relationship," said Todd Danko, lead research scientist for Lockheed's effort.

While the company is based in Bethesda, Md., members of the robot team hail from Lockheed's Advanced Technology Laboratories, a research unit based in Cherry Hill.

In addition to maintaining balance, another top challenge is energy, Pratt said. The best batteries are just one-tenth as "energy-dense" as the fuel that humans use for energy - that is, food. What's more, humans use their fuel far more efficiently than the robots do.

"You and I can walk a very long distance on the food that we eat," Pratt said. "These robots have a much more difficult time."

The competition takes place June 5 and 6 in Pomona, Calif., followed by a day of workshops, at which the winning teams will share details of how they did it, Pratt said. All events can be seen via webcast (details at www.theroboticschallenge.org).

Top prize is $2 million.

Though the contest is sponsored by an arm of the Pentagon, officials stress that these robots are designed not to wage war, but for disaster response.

For now, at least.

"It could be used in future systems for defense, or it could be used for any number of things like health care," Pratt said.

Or perhaps as a chauffeur - albeit one with an unorthodox driving style.

Leo's bulky frame has to be manually lifted into the Polaris Ranger vehicle at the Pennsauken warehouse. It is so big that its legs do not fit under the dashboard, and it must face sideways.

Leo normally "sees" with a combination of cameras and a laser that allows it to determine the distance to various objects.

In order for Leo to see while driving, the engineers have mounted two additional cameras on its left shoulder.

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©2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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