What's next for IHMC's 'Running Man' team?

  • August 17, 2015
  • /   Carlton Proctor
  • /   community-dashboard

Peter Neuhaus at the DARPA Robotic Challenge finals in California earlier this year. Photo credit: IHMC.

Two months have passed since "Running Man," Team IHMC's semi-autonomous robot, placed second in an international robotics competition in Pomona, Calif.

The showing put the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition's team on the worldwide map for bi-pedal robotics, and sent them home with $1 million in prize money.

Sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, the competition pitted 21 other teams from around the world in a simulated disaster response exercise.

Each team's autonomous robot, individually programmed with software, had to perform eight tasks, such as driving a car, walking over debris, cutting a hole in a wall and turning a wheeled valve.

At the end of the two-day DARPA competition IHMC's Running Man had bested teams from some of the top academic and research institutions in the world.

Now back at an IHMC lab in downtown Pensacola, the robotics team is still basking in the glow of the attention brought by the DARPA event.

{{business_name}}Time Magazine cover featuring the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition's robotics team.

Time Magazine cover featuring the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition's robotics team.

Team IHMC's robotics research, for example, was featured in a recent Time Magazine cover story. Despite the adulation, the team is moving on to other projects in the field that lead researcher Peter Neuhaus calls "legged" robots.

With Team IHMC's Running Man suspended from an overhead tether in the lab, Peter Neuhaus, an MIT graduate with a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, spoke about what's next for Team IHMC.

Question: Team IHMC won $1 million at the DARPA competition. What are your plans for the money?

Answer: We'll use it as an internal research and development fund. Generally, from year to year, we don't have a steady source of funds. For example, we may submit a proposal for a research grant, and we have a gap in funding before that proposal either gets rejected or accepted, so in that interim we hate to lose people then have to hire them back, so we'll use the money for that.

Q: What's next for the IHMC Robotics Team?

A: Currently we have a contract with NASA, entering year four, which is part of the National Robotics Initiative. That task is to develop humanoid avatars for exploration of hazardous environments. So, it's similar to the DRC (DARPA Robotics Challenge), but more of a focus on space applications. NASA just announced a space robotics challenge. They are looking to robots take over some of the humanoid work on extreme environments like the Moon or Mars.. From what they've disclosed it sounds like they'll have a virtual challenge sometime next year that will be similar to DARPA competition. The way NASA is describing it, there would be a virtual challenge, and the winners of the virtual challenge would get access to the Valkyrie robot -- similar to the one we have on loan from DARPA-- and they would then in the following year develop algorithms to instruct the robot to do a series of tasks. Those tasks would include, for example, getting out of an airlock, or surface exploration tasks. That would be in 2017.

Q: What would Team IHMC's role be in this proposed competition?

A: As part of that program, NASA is looking for host sites. We just submitted a proposal to NASA to be a host site, which means we would receive a Valkyrie robot, similar to the Atlas robot we used in the DARPA competition.

As part of that program, we have a contract to develop the walking and balance algorithms for the Valkyrie robot so that all the teams and competitors and host sites don't have to become experts in bipedal walking.

Q: Why did Team IHMC decide to become a host site rather than a competitor for NASA's Space Robotics Challenge?

A: NASA has not specified the dollar amounts for the competitor as well as the prize. They just published for the host sites. Since we already have a contract to provide the walking algorithms for the Valkyrie, we think we might be excluded from being a competitor anyway.

Q: Will the Space Robotics Challenge be your main focus going forward?

A: Yes. The Space Robotics Challenge will keep about two-thirds of our lab busy for the next couple of years.

Q: Beyond the Space Robotics Challenger, what other research and development opportunities do you see on the horizon for bi-pedal robotics?

A: There are still a lot of opportunities for further development. Whether it's getting robots to move faster; getting better interfaces to accomplish tasks; to more reliable locomotion; and protecting the robot hardware during a fall, and then getting up from a fall. Those are all kind of areas that we haven't addressed and are pretty wide open for further research.

Q: What do you think your great showing at the DARPA competition has done for IHMC and Pensacola?

{{business_name}}Peter Neuhaus of the Florida IHMC Robotics team. Photo credit: IHMC

Peter Neuhaus of the Florida IHMC Robotics team. Photo credit: IHMC

A: Our efforts on this project definitely brought us a reputation as experts in legged robots. And because of that we've gotten a few contracts from other research organizations to help them get their walking robots working. We've worked with Sandia National Labs. They actually were at the DRC finals. SRI in California contacted us for help with walking robots. And we've been contacted by an entertainment company looking to us to help them get a quadrupedal robot walking upright. So we're in the contact negotiation phase with them.

I think the DARPA competition really helped give us some credibility. DARPA has been one of our major funders, and this just helps support their opinion of us. So the next time a program comes around, and we submit a proposal, we hope DARPA will say, "Well, Team IHMC can really deliver."

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