Monday, July 1, 2013

DARPA Robotics Challenge: Gazebo & One Software Program to Rule Them All

The DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) is both exciting and terrifying: exciting in that the competition will likely lead to numerous breakthroughs in robotics; terrifying in that those same breakthroughs can be used for less than savory purposes. For now, let's look beyond the PRISM veil and focus on the positive uses. DARPA's (stated) goals for the competition are to encourage the "development of advanced robots that can assist humans in mitigating and recovering from future natural and man-made disasters." The larger impact might be greater innovations in open source hardware and software robotics development that might lead to lowering the cost of entry, acquisition, build-out, and field application.
According to DARPA, "The primary technical goal of the DRC is to develop ground robots capable of executing complex tasks in dangerous, degraded, human-engineered environments. Competitors in the DRC are expected to focus on robots that can use standard tools and equipment commonly available in human environments, ranging from hand tools to vehicles, with an emphasis on adaptability to tools with diverse specifications." 
DARPA recently announced the results of the first stage of the competition: The Virtual Robotics Challenge, held this past June 17-21, 2013. Twenty-six teams from eight countries took part in the five-day-long qualification event, where a virtual humanoid robot attempted to complete difficult tasks while traversing a virtual obstacle course. According to Popular Science, the nine winning teams earned government "funding and the use of a government-provided robot, the 5-foot-10, 240-pound Boston Dynamics-built Atlas, in the next phase of the DRC." NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab team (JPL) was one of the nine teams to advance to the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials in December 2013. In April 2012, DARPA selected Boston Dynamics as a sole source to develop and build the humanoid robots that the software teams use in the DRC. The robot now known as Atlas.

Obvious in the title, The Virtual Robotics Challenge occurred inside a simulation program. In the finals, Atlas will need to complete tasks that might include driving cars, walking across rubble, moving heavy objects, walking stairs, opening and closing doors and valves, using tools, and climbing ladders.
"A secondary goal of the DRC is to make software and hardware development for ground-robot systems more accessible to interested contributors, thereby lowering the cost of acquisition while increasing capabilities. DARPA seeks to accomplish this by creating and providing government-furnished equipment (GFE) to some DRC participants in the form of a robotic hardware platform with arms, legs, torso and head. Availability of this platform will allow teams without hardware expertise or hardware to participate. Additionally, all teams will have access to a government-furnished simulator created by DARPA and populated with models of robots, robot components and field environments. The simulator will be an open-source, real-time, operator-interactive virtual test bed, and the accuracy of the models used in it will be rigorously validated on a physical test bed. DARPA hopes the creation of a widely available, validated, affordable, and community supported and enhanced virtual test environment will play a catalytic role in development of robotics technology, allowing new hardware and software designs to be evaluated without the need for physical prototyping."
At the gooey software center of these robots is Gazebo, the DARPA funded simulation software provided to every DRC team for the recent qualifier. Gazebo developed out of a $6M DARPA funding grant to the Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF) over a three-year period. Incidentally, the software is free to download (Linux/Ubuntu only with OSX and Windows versions soon to roll out). Gazebo mega-minds Nate Koenig and Gil Pratt conducted an insightful Reddit AMA this past June 26, 2013 that is worth your time. 
"Gazebo is a multi-robot simulator for outdoor environments. Like Stage, it is capable of simulating a population of robots, sensors and objects, but does so in a three-dimensional world. It generates both realistic sensor feedback and physically plausible interactions between objects (it includes an accurate simulation of rigid-body physics)."
Popular Science writer Erik Sofge notes that it is, "possible that Gazebo will be the only tangible product of the DRC. DARPA’s first robotic car race, the 2004 Grand Challenge, ended with an autonomous whimper, when none of the self-driven vehicles crossed the finish line in qualifying time. Follow-up Challenges proved more fruitful, but the DRC’s full roster of tasks (which include sawing through a wall with a cordless power tool) could be too difficult even for the world’s best robotics teams. But even in that worst-case scenario, DARPA and the DRC will have created a free, powerful tool, with the potential to unite an entire field." 

Go here for a complete list of Virtual Robotics Challenge teams selected.

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