PNNL enters robotics contest

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 6, 2014 

PNNL robot

Pacific Northwest National Laboratories researcher Karl Castleton operates Buddy the robot which he and a group called Team Mojavaton will use to compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge.

PAUL T. ERICKSON

Buddy the robot has a lot to learn this year, starting with how to drive.

Karl Castleton, a computer scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is leading a team to get Buddy ready to compete in a Department of Defense robotics contest.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is offering a $2 million prize for the best design of a robot that it can send into disaster areas too dangerous for humans.

Castleton and a team of mostly Colorado Mesa University students and volunteers in Grand Junction, Colo., have until the final competition for the prize in December to prepare Buddy. Castleton works for the Department of Energy laboratory in Richland, but telecommutes from Grand Junction and was on the Richland campus Thursday with Buddy.

Castleton put him through his paces for lab staff and the media, and Buddy, a quadraped, slowly walked forward, tilting from side to side as he lifted his four feet one at a time. The robot used a camera to record what was in front of him and an infrared laser to calculate the distance to the furniture in front of him.

Castleton slipped on a computerized glove and when he moved his fingers, Buddy did the same. Castleton also can type instructions into a program, telling Buddy to lift his hand an inch at a time.

Castleton's team, Team Mojavaton, had hoped to receive some DARPA money to develop Buddy, but when they didn't decided to build him on his own.

"He was nothing but thoughts in February," Castleton said.

By December, the team had a 37-pound robot standing about 4 feet tall and with an arm span six feet long that can fold up into a box for travel. He's made up of $20,000 in parts, including parts manufactured with a 3-D printer, which is far less than most of the robots in the competition, Castleton said.

Buddy may have been an underdog in the competition, but the team thought he was ready for the DARPA preliminary trials just before Christmas. In the laboratory he could close a valve, open and close doors and carry a fire hose.

But he turned out to have weak knees.

At the trials, the individual $500 motors that allow him to move his legs at their joints overheated and Team Mojavaton was concerned that they would be destroyed if he finished the tasks.

They're still confident that given a chance at the DARPA competition finals this coming December, Buddy can prove he's up to tasks that include climbing a ladder and getting into and driving a golf cart or all-terrain vehicle.

Castleton is not too worried about the driving. He previously competed in DARPA challenges to develop a self-driving vehicle.

Long term, Castleton is interested in bringing the cost down of a robot like Buddy. His individual motors need to not only be more durable, but cost about $100, he said.

That would bring the price of parts for a robot down to about $4,000.

Buddy also needs to lose his tether, which provides computer power, to make him more useful at disaster scenes.

And then Castleton wants to make Buddy "smarter." Rather than following specific computer commands, Castleton wants autonomous behavior that would allow Buddy to correctly respond to a command to walk into a room and turn off a valve.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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