In a room in Drexel's 33rd Street Armory filled with computers, grad students and the scent of many, many food-truck lunches, a robot is being programmed to save the world. Or, at the least, do some really cool tricks. The humanoid robot, a retrofitted version of the Korean-made HUBO, is a participant in the DARPA Robotics Challenge, designed to stimulate innovation in robotics for disaster-relief and humanitarian operations — hopefully, eventually putting first responders out of harm's way.
To that end, HUBO is learning to climb ladders, open and close valves, hook up hoses, open doors, walk on rough terrain, drive a car and remove debris. And, you can go check it out on your lunch break.
Lead researcher Daniel Lofaro of Drexel's Autonomous Systems Lab has been working up to this for seven years. He now has a team from nine schools including Swarthmore, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Georgia Tech, University of Delaware and Purdue to vie against teams from heavyweights like NASA and defense-contractor Raytheon. He hired a professional set designer to create the disaster scenes so that the robot's vision algorithms would be tested in lifelike situation. This December, they'll go on to the next phase of the competition, a live disaster-response effort. If they succeed they'll get funding to compete in the finals in December 2014, for a $2 million prize.
The robot will be in training Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m.-1 p.m., though visitors may not see much action if HUBO happens to require repairs. Still, Lofaro says, kids seem to love them. "Robots get people excited about science, especially little kids. You see them looking at one of these robots, which are bigger than them, and see the smiles, and you hope that one of them is going to go into the sciences in the future."
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