CMU makes second round of national competition to build robot to aid in disaster zones

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CHIMP, with its vague resemblance to its simian namesake, is designed to imitate humans at disaster sites that are too dangerous for them.

And with a tight deadline to prepare CHIMP for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Robotics Challenge in December, Carnegie Mellon University roboticists have no time to monkey around.

CHIMP, created by CMU's Tartan Rescue Team at the National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville, has advanced in the U.S. Department of Defense's robotics challenge to develop a mobile robot able to help mitigate conditions where heat, fumes, radiation and other hazards are obstacles. One example would be the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident on March 11, 2011, where radiation levels made it impossible for people to remain at the site to shut down the reactors.

CMU Robotics Center advances in competition

The CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform (CHIMP) robot heads to the next phase in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's disaster-site competition. (Video by Marina Weis; 7/11/2013)

DARPA, which is funding the competition, announced on Thursday that CMU, Drexel University, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA's Johnson Space Center, Schaft Inc., and Virginia Tech University will advance and compete in a December trial. Winning teams will meet the following December for the finals.

"We have dramatically raised the expectations for robotic capabilities with this challenge and brought together a diverse group of teams to compete," said Gill Pratt, program manager of the robotics challenge. "The progress that teams have made so far is incredible, given the short timeline DARPA put in place."

CMU robotics are developing CHIMP from scratch. Most other teams are adapting existing robots to meet competition specifications. Anthony J. Stentz, director of the Lawrenceville center, said his Tartan Rescue Team hopes to complete CHIMP by Aug. 30 with testing and tweaking continuing until the day of competition.

"It's a challenge and that typically means a screaming fast pace," he said, noting dozens of roboticists and scientists are participating. "This is an up-tempo project but we have a good group of people working on it, and we are excited that this announcement means we can continue."

DARPA also has competitions underway to develop robotic software, including writing the best software code for ATLAS, a humanoid robot developed by Boston Dynamics.

CHIMP -- an acronym for CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform -- has a body, four limbs, and a head loaded with cameras, laser sensors and other technology. Like a chimpanzee, it can move on all fours. That's where the comparison ends. The two hind legs have tank-like rubber tracks as feet, with similar tracks imbedded into its forearms. Those arms extend to grasping hands.

The challenge requires the robots to use tools, drive vehicles and climb ladders, among other human-like skills required to work in human-made environments that turn into disaster scenes.

CHIMP will move like a tank as it travels on all fours over debris. Upon arriving at key locations, it can stand on hind legs and use its hands to perform complex tasks, including turning valves. The robot, able to do some task on its own, also will serve as the eyes and hands of a human operator, stationed a safe distance away, who can guide the robot through tasks necessary to stabilize the situation or assist in search-and-rescue missions.

Its cameras, lasers and perception systems produce 2-D and 3-D images of the scene, so the operator can guide the robot similar to playing a video game.

CHIMP is "a pretty powerful robot that's a little over 5 feet tall and tops 400 pounds," Mr. Stentz said. "It's like a squat offensive lineman on the football team.

"It would be hard to tackle."

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David Templeton: or 412-263-1578. First Published July 11, 2013 6:30 PM


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