CMU robot to show its disaster relief capabilities in competition

After an intense year, CHIMP finally is one complete robot -- 5 feet 2 inches tall, 400 pounds of electronics and steel, with a 10-foot wingspan and a "face" that one roboticist, blanching a bit, called cute.

Well, sort of cute, with big round eyes (camera lenses) bookending a row of lasers and sensors and what appears to be a mouth and chin on the robot neck.

The red, simian-like robot and the university's Tartan Rescue team now are busy training for a U.S. Department of Defense competition against five other robots, all designed to enter disaster sites to provide relief. The question is, which can do it the best?

CMU builds robot to aid in disaster zones

The CMU designed CHIMP robot was designed to work on disaster sites that are too dangerous for humans. (Video by Andrew Rush; 12/5/2013)

CMU's National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville has two weeks to refine and tweak CHIMP -- the CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform -- for the Dec. 20- 21 Robotics Challenge to be held in a created disaster site at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, a NASCAR track in Homestead, Fla.

Sponsored and funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the competition includes four tracks involving 17 teams. CHIMP is participating in Track A, which will require the partially autonomous robot to complete eight tasks, including turning valves, traversing debris, using power tools, getting in and out of vehicles, and climbing ladders.

Four of CHIMP's competitors are humanoid -- human-like -- robots developed by Drexel University, NASA's Johnson Space Center, Schaft Inc. and Virginia Tech University, with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory's robot, RoboSimian, walking like CHIMP on four limbs but looking more like an insect. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency provided $3 million to each team to develop the robots.

The CMU robot was completed only five weeks ago, with refinements and software upgrades continuing until the competition begins. Agency rules require the robots to be partially autonomous. But team members must practice operating it to perform required tasks, much like playing a video game.

One of CHIMP's advantages in a disaster situation is its four-limbed stability.

"The bipeds need to balance when they are walking, running and standing. That is hard to do for a robot," said Anthony J. Stentz, director of CMU's National Robotics Engineering Center. "CHIMP is never in danger of falling over."

Designing, constructing and programming CHIMP involved 50 people, including 10 working on the project full time. They developed CHIMP from scratch while most teams are adapting existing humanoid robots to perform the required tasks.

With CHIMP barely 1 month old, Mr. Stentz said, "It's still in diapers."

The defense agency sponsored the competition in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident in Japan, where a robot could have entered the plant to reduce radiation contamination and damage. Mr. Stentz said Japanese officials contacted CMU after the accident to inquire whether technology existed that could enter the plant to assess damage and perform remedial tasks. Decades ago, a CMU robot was used successfully years after the Three Mile Island accident to take photographs and monitor radiation levels.

The defense agency's website says CHIMP is designed "for executing complex tasks in dangerous, degraded, human-engineered environments." Its near-human form possesses "the strength and dexterity to work effectively" in a disaster setting "yet avoid the need for complex control." Rather than walk, CHIMP rolls on rubberized treads like a tank.

CHIMP also uses 360-degree sensing to build a computer model of its surroundings, which provides its remote operator a view inside the disaster site. The operator then can direct CHIMP to perform procedures, with the robot capable of doing rudimentary tasks on its own.

Each robot will be timed as it attempts to complete the eight tasks.

Adding to the challenge, the robot must operate on a low-quality computer bandwidth, as might occur during a disaster. How the robot fares in the competition will help determine which teams receive an additional $1 million to proceed in the competition until next December's finals.

Nerves for the Tartan Rescue team are building.

"It's an exciting program and an exciting development," Mr. Stentz said. "And an exciting competition will be the culmination of all the excitement."


David Templeton: or 412-263-1578.

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