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Boston Dynamics Takes Center Stage In New DARPA Challenge

Boston Dynamics represents a good chunk of the news items that we missed during our hiatus.  Arguably the most important item was the announcement of a new DARPA Robotics Challenge and Boston Dynamics’ commitment to build 8 PETMAN / ATLAS robots for the competing software teams.  DARPA is quick to point out that the challenge isn’t limited to bipedal humanoid robots, but given the following breakdown it seems inevitable that most of the competing robots will take humanoid form.  Head passed the break for the full breakdown and our thoughts on each leg of the challenge!

The 1st Responder Challenge

1. Drive a vehicle

The robot has to enter the vehicle, drive it by operating the vehicle controls (steering, throttle, brakes, and ignition), before finally exiting the vehicle.

Note that several years ago AIST performed an experiment where they teleoperated the HRP-1S in a construction vehicle in a rainy environment.  Later simulations involved the HRP-2 Promet entering the driver side of a standard automobile.

2. Travel across rubble

Cross terrain ranging from smooth and level to rough and sloped, with some loose soil and rocks. The terrain will include obstacles and ditches that the robot must avoid.

If PETMAN / ATLAS has similar balancing capabilities to BigDog, this task should certainly be possible.  Robots built by Honda, and AIST’s HRP robots, are capable of walking on both slippery floors and those with minor bumps and slopes.

3. Remove debris blocking an entryway

Here the robot has to move an object blocking an entryway. This task won’t be as difficult as it sounds as the object is expected not to exceed 5 kilograms (11 lbs).

Most humanoid robots are surprisingly weak in this area, however both Robonaut 2 (NASA & GM) and REEM-B (PAL Robotics) can already lift as much.  In an experiment conducted in 2008, the HRP-2 Promet was able to lift as much as 23.4 kg (51.5 lbs).  What might be more difficult is the act of manipulating an uneven object.

4. Open a door and enter a building

The robot has to operate a door handle and have the strength to push the door open and enter.

Depending on the weight of the door, this may prove more challenging than one might expect.  In recent years researchers have explored this task using the HRP-2 Promet.

5. Climb a ladder and traverse an industrial walkway

The robot has to traverse a catwalk with a grated surface and handrails. As part of this task, the robot has to climb an industrial ladder.

Traversing a catwalk shouldn’t be too difficult, as researchers have already shown they can teleoperate a robot like the HRP-2 Promet using just a modified game controller.  Climbing a ladder with unknown dimensions – outside of a simulation – will be the real challenge here.

6. Use a tool to break through a concrete panel

Next the robot has to use a power tool to perform “forceful manipulation.” The power tool will likely be an air or electric impact hammer and chisel, or an electric reciprocating saw. The task is to break through a concrete panel (with no rebar) or a wall.

Other robots have already demonstrated the ability to manipulate power tools including electric screwdrivers (see HRP-3 Promet Mk. II).

7. Locate and close a valve near a leaking pipe

In this event, the robot has to find a leaking pipe and a nearby valve, which it needs to close. The facility will contain multiple pipes, but only one will be leaking, visible as smoke and audible as the hiss of escaping gas.

Again, this is mainly a manipulation challenge (though the robot’s strength may also be put to the test).  The HRP-1S uses a tool to tighten a valve in the above photo.

8. Replace a component such as a cooling pump

Finally, the robot has to locate the pump and be able to loosen one or more fasteners to extract the pump from its fittings and reverse all steps to replace the pump. It is expected that the pump will be small and compact enough to fit in one hand.  Again the above example with the HRP-3 Promet Mk.II comes to mind, but the real manipulation challenge will be if the robot has to replace a pump it has never encountered before.

A couple of years ago when Marc Raibert commented that his team had eclipsed the work being done in Japan, I didn’t know what to expect.  I never would have imagined a challenge like this!  That said, I was surprised to see a couple of activities absent from the list.  One, that the robot will not have to negotiate stairs (particularly since Boston Dynamics’ PETMAN recently demonstrated the task in this video).  And I expected to see a crawling challenge, as shown in the above photo of the HRP-2 Promet.  Of course these may yet be added to the gauntlet before the challenge takes place in December 2013!

If this challenge doesn’t get you excited about robots, nothing will.  It is important to note that while many of these tasks have been demonstrated by robots before, immeasurable time and effort went into achieving each one.  Usually such experiments are carried out in a lab, and some have never been attempted outside of a simulation.  It will be absolutely amazing to see robots go through the entire challenge, and the planned prize of $2 million dollars will certainly be well earned.

That Boston Dynamics will supply eight of their cutting-edge humanoids to the program is particularly noteworthy.  What with the fact American universities have recently imported seven HUBO 2 robots from South Korea, and now this announcement, it appears the United States is finally getting serious about humanoids – really serious!

For more information, I recommend these two articles by IEEE Spectrum:


  • It actually has seemed to me that AIST / Kawada HRP series robots are well on their way of achieving such goals, i’m surprised that DARPA picked Boston Dynamics instead.

  • Nice article – and agreed, if this doesn’t get one excited, then your robot heart, or heart for robots, is frozen cold! | Revolutionary Robotics at the Warehouse in Waltham. Boston Dynamics Dominates –