Monster Machines: CMU's CHIMP Will Save Lives

The Fukushima Daiichi meltdown and other recent disasters like Deepwater Horizon highlight a very real need for robotic first responders that can operate in inhospitable environments. In response, DARPA recently issued a Robotics Challenge addressing the issue. Here's the design that Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering centre (CMU NREC) hopes will take home the challenge's $US2 million purse — and save lives some day.

While the US Army has been using EOD robots as human stand-ins for high-risk bomb disposal for years now, these bots simply aren't designed to move around in a world designed for people — what with all the stairs, door knobs, ladders, and such — and especially not in disaster areas with piles of rubble to traverse. Building a robot capable of overcoming these obstacles is no mean feat either; enter the DARPA Robotics Challenge.

The challenge is set up as an obstacle course simulating the conditions human first responders often encounter. Of the 11 teams, seven competitors in Track A — including CMU — will construct their own robotic hardware and software while the remaining teams in Track B will develop just the software which will be installed in a Boston Dynamics Pet-Proto. In all, the 11 competing robots must complete a series of eight individual challenges to win, including

  • driving a utility vehicle to the disaster site
  • travelling safely across rubble
  • removing debris from an entryway
  • opening a door and entering into a building
  • climbing up a ladder and crossing a walkway
  • using a tool to smash through a concrete panel
  • finding and closing a valve near a leaking pipe
  • replacing a cooling pump or other component.

It doesn't matter if the robot looks human, just so long as it can move like one. Carnegie Mellon's Track A team, Tartan Rescue, has entered the CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform (CHIMP). Rather than try to replicate a conventional human gait, which requires lots of processing power to maintain balance, the roughly 1.5m tall CHIMP moves about more like a Gundam — that is on a set of treads. These treads are mounted to all four limbs — though the CHIMP can also stand on just two — enabling the robot to overcome sizable obstacles and rough terrain. What's more, each limb is equipped with a manipulator arm boasting near-equal strength to a human hand and arm — allowing the robot to open doors, climb ladders and use tools — as well as with small cameras for fine-grain manoeuvring and detail inspection.

The CHIMP's head is packed with cameras and IR sensors which help create texture-mapped, 3D models of the surrounding environment for obstacle avoidance as well as keeping the robot upright. These models also help the remote operator guide it through the course. See, the CHIMP isn't fully autonomous, rather it handles much of the subconscious heavy lifting much like how our brain constantly recalculates body position to maintain balance without us actively thinking about it.

"Anything that requires a real-time action like stopping its motion to avoid collision or grabbing an object that requires feedback from the sensors in the hands, that's handled by the robot," Tony Stentz, NREC director and Tartan Rescue Team leader told Gizmodo. "But higher level directives like 'pick up this object' or 'grab this item here', those are commands that are sent from humans."

How much autonomy the CHIMP exhibits — say, opening and climbing through a hatch or grasping a tool without requiring human instruction — depends on which operational mode the operator chooses.

The initial design phase has already begun and the Challenge's preliminary software "virtual" competition is set for June. Constructiuon on the the CHIMP is slated to begin in coming months ahead of the the first of two obstacle course rounds this and next December, after which a winner will be announced. [Defense Update, NREC, NREC, DARPA, NYT]

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