LAWRENCE — A team from the University of Kansas School of Engineering was selected to participate in a competition from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to design a humanoid robot capable of performing a broad range of human tasks in an emergency situation.
Dongkyu Choi, assistant professor of aerospace engineering, is leading KU's efforts in the DARPA Robotics Challenge.
"This is a fun, challenging competition, and it's great that we managed to get a spot in there with some of the other teams in our track," Choi said. That list includes Lockheed Martin's Advanced Technology Laboratories, Carnegie Mellon University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The DARPA Robotics Challenge has four tracks. Teams in Track A receive DARPA funding to develop the hardware for the robot and the software to run it. KU will compete in Track B and will receive a $371,000 DARPA grant to develop only software to control a DARPA-furnished robot. A portion of the grant will go to the Korea Institute of Science and Technology — a world leader in the development of humanoid robots — that is partnering with KU for the competition.
Track C requires only software development, and Track D requires robot and software development, but Tracks C and D do not initially receive DARPA funding and are open to any team or individual.
The challenge calls for competitors to develop a robot that can assist humans in emergency response when a disaster strikes.
"I think this competition was motivated in part by Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. They noticed they needed robots to go into that nuclear reactor area to avoid putting humans in harm's way," Choi said.
The disaster scenario outlined in the DARPA competition involves a series of daunting tasks for the humanoid robot to perform at a factory that's experiencing a leak of toxic materials. The robot must enter a vehicle, drive the vehicle to a factory, exit the vehicle, cross through challenging terrain to reach the factory door, remove rubble blocking the door, open the door, walk through the factory, then climb a ladder. At this point, the robot encounters a concrete wall blocking its path to the valve leaking the hazardous materials. It must use a power tool to make a hole in the wall, then go through the hole, close the leaky valve and attach a fire hose to a spigot.
"Every step of this mission is difficult. Getting in a car is difficult. Driving is difficult. Getting out of it is difficult. It's insane almost," Choi said. "But still it's a pretty good challenge and great experience for KU." As a team in the software-only track, KU will first perform three of the overall tasks (driving the vehicle, traversing progressively more difficult terrain and attaching the hose to the spigot) in a virtual competition that uses a simulated robot.
Choi is still recruiting members for the KU team, which will have until June 2013 to develop its software. At that time, KU will compete against teams from Tracks B and C, and hopes to earn a top-six finish. If the KU team accomplishes that, it would receive a robot from DARPA in preparation for the competition championship. The Jayhawk team would then compete in December 2013 against the finalists from Tracks A and D. KU stands to receive additional DARPA funding if the team advances to the finals.
"This is an outstanding opportunity for KU. Some people won't even try something like this because they worry it's too tough and they're bound to fail. By getting this grant, we have the opportunity to take a chance, give it our best shot and go for it," Choi said.
Students interested in participating are encouraged to contact Choi by email or by calling 864-2924.