Award-winning robotics team speaks at UWF about experiences in competition

By Richard Conn, CREO Staff Writer

Members of the award-winning Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition Robotics Team spoke at the University of West Florida April 14 about their experiences in a prestigious international competition that earned them a second-place finish.

The robotics team from IHMC, a nonprofit research institute in downtown Pensacola, competed in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Robotics Challenge. The challenge consisted of three different competitions held from 2013-15. 

The goal of the competition held by DARPA, which is the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense, was to develop robots that were capable of assisting humans during natural or man-made disasters.  

Over the course of the competition, the IHMC team was made up of 48 members from seven countries. Those members ranged from high school students to those who had earned doctorate degrees. 

“It’s a pretty varied team, as well as a pretty international team,” said Dr. Peter Neuhaus, senior research scientist at IHMC. 

The IHMC team finished first out of 26 teams in the virtual robotics challenge portion of the competition, which was held in June 2013 and required teams to develop software that would enable a robot to perform several tasks during a disaster. Those tasks included walking through mud and over rough terrain, picking up a hose and connecting it to a spigot and driving a car. 

“So basically we’re controlling a simulated robot, and the way they make it realistic is by including the physics, or the rigid body dynamics, in the simulation. And that’s a critical aspect to the competition,” Neuhaus said. “A lot of video games that you play might have some realistic physics but generally not to the level that this simulation does.”

For their first-place finish in the virtual challenge, the IHMC team received funding from DARPA, as well as a hydraulically-powered ATLAS robot to compete in the DARPA trials that were held in December 2013 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. The IHMC team finished second in that competition, in which each team’s robot had to perform eight tasks that included removing debris, climbing a ladder and turning a valve. 

“It was a pretty competitive challenge, and we were pretty happy how we did,” Neuhaus said. 
The IHMC team next went on to compete in the DARPA finals held in June 2015 in Pomona, California. 
“We had to speed everything up,” Neuhaus said of the difference between the DARPA trials and the finals. “We were doing a single task in 30 minutes. Now we had to do eight tasks in one hour.”

Neuhaus said most teams posted videos before the finals of their robots doing all the challenges in their own labs. All were at about the same level and speed, he said. 

“It really came to down to just some luck and some skill as to how repeatable and how well you were prepared for any problems that would come up,” Neuhaus said. 

The IHMC team received $1 million for their second-place finish in the finals and finished ahead of teams from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lockheed Martin and Carnegie Mellon University, among other institutions. 

A team from KAIST in Daejeon, South Korea, won first place.

The IHMC team also includes four UWF alumni: Doug Stephen, Travis Craig, Duncan Calvert and John Carff. 

Stephen, who graduated from UWF in 2013, advised students to try to gain experience outside the classroom whenever possible. 

“Pick up side projects if you can, because there is only so much time in the day for professors and the doctors here to teach you things, and it’s not going to be everything you need to know in the real world,” Stephen said. 

Thursday’s presentation by the IHMC Robotics Team at the UWF College of Science and Engineering building was sponsored by the UWF Artificial Intelligence Research Group, the UWF student chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the IEEE Professional Section and the Student Government Association.

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