Science and Technology News

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Eight Teams Earn DARPA Funds for 2014 Robotics Finals



By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 24, 2013 – On Dec. 21, at a racetrack complex near Miami, eight robots took their first steps into the future, one that scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency envisioned for them as the world watched the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster unfold in 2011.

Soon after, they established the DARPA Robotics Challenge. The challenge’s first event took place in June with 26 teams from eight countries and whose last event will begin at the end of 2014 at the DRC Finals with a winning team, a robot, and a $2 million award.

DARPA launched the challenge to help develop robots that can work with people to respond to natural and other kinds of disasters.

The competition -- consisting of robot systems and software teams -- was designed to be very difficult, at a time in robot evolution when real robots generally work on stationary bases in factories doing clearly defined repetitive tasks or in controlled laboratory environments, said DRC program manager Dr. Gill Pratt.

Participating teams, down from 100 when the program began, to 16 at the DRC Trials 2013 held Dec. 20-21 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida, represent some of the world’s most advanced robotics research and development organizations.

The teams, DARPA officials said, are collaborating and innovating on a very short timeline to develop hardware, software, sensors and human-machine control interfaces that will allow their robots to complete a series of tasks chosen for their relevance to disaster response.

In Florida, while thousands of spectators watched and often cheered, the 16 international teams, representing industry, academia and NASA, guided their robots through as many as eight individual, physical tasks that tested the robots’ mobility, manipulation, dexterity, perception and operator-control mechanisms.

Eight teams scored the highest number of points for all tasks completed and are headed for the 2014 finals. Pratt said DARPA has $8 million to divide among the teams for further development, depending on individual team contract negotiations, to prepare for the finals.

The qualifying teams were:

1. 27 points, Team SCHAFT, Robot S‐One, lead organization: SCHAFT Inc.;

2. 20 points, Team IHMC Robotics, Robot Atlas‐Ian, lead organization: Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition;

3. 18 points, Team Tartan Rescue, Robot CHIMP, lead organization: Carnegie Mellon University, National Robotics Engineering Center;

4. 16 points, Team MIT, Robot Atlas-Helios, lead organization: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory;

5. 14 points, Team RoboSimian, Robot RoboSimian, lead organization: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory;

6. 11 points, Team TRACLabs, Robot Atlas, lead organization: TRACLabs Inc.;

7. 11 points, Team: WPI Robotics Engineering C Squad (WRECS), Robot Atlas-Warner, lead organization: Worcester Polytechnic Institute; and

8. 9 points, Team Trooper, Robot Atlas, lead organization: Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Labs.

On the first day of the trials, speaking from victory lane next to the race track, DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar thanked the teams for their hard work, ingenuity and collaboration with DARPA.

“We will show the world what’s possible, what we need to work on, what it’s really going to take for robots to step up when disaster strikes,” Prabhakar said, adding that the teams would help build a better future with robotic capabilities.

Jyuji Hewitt, deputy director of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, called the teams’ efforts a reality check into technology’s “art of the possible.”

Dr. Brad Tousley, director of DARPA's Tactical Technology Office, said DARPA was happy with the teams, the robots and the enthusiastic crowds.

“There are a lot of teams getting a lot of points,” he said during a press briefing after the first day of the two-day event. “From our standpoint that shows real progress.”

After the closing ceremony, during which Pratt awarded certificates to the eight winning teams, the scientist briefed the press, summing up the DRC’s results.

“The technology has shown itself to be more advanced than I had expected -- not by much but by a little bit. The robots were more reliable than we initially expected -- not by a lot but by a little. But that’s only half of the picture,” he explained.

“We’re not quite sure of the [date for the 2014 Finals] yet but we will advance the robots significantly, much more than we have up until now,” Pratt said. “We’ll see how far we get.”

In the Miami trials the robots had to complete as many as eight separate challenges.

These included driving a utility vehicle over a short course, getting out of the vehicle and walking, removing rubble from a doorway and going through the door, climbing a ladder, using a tool to cut a hole in a wall, opening valves, and pulling a fire hose a short distance and connecting it to a standpipe.

During the finals next year, Pratt said DARPA will combine all the tasks into a more authentic mission for disaster response.

“We’re trying to move it from an engineer’s test to an authentic test,” he added, “and we’re trying to do that at just the right rate so that it matches the maturity of the technology.”

Still, Pratt said, “I think we can make the finals a little harder than I had thought.”

No matter how the finals turn out, the robot technology will have to be commercialized before it can be used in disaster response and mitigation, he said.

“What the commercial sector can do is to find a market for the technology. It may not be in disaster response, it may be in health care, agriculture or manufacturing. We just don’t know,” Pratt added.

“But the most important thing is, after DARPA does its work, we count on the commercial world to reduce the cost, find the markets and produce things of value,” Pratt explained, and only afterward can the disaster-response community put the robots to work in those applications.

According to its DRC fact sheet, DARPA fully expects all those things to happen.

“Technologies resulting from the DRC will transform the field of robotics,” the fact sheet says, “and catapult forward development of robots featuring task-level autonomy that can operate in the hazardous, degraded conditions common in disaster zones.”

And of the very successful Florida DRC trials, DARPA’s Tousley said, “Every time DARPA does a challenge we learn something new and we try and make that process better, and even better for the development of technology for the future.”

Monday, December 23, 2013

DOD Looks 25 Years Ahead in Unmanned Vehicle Roadmap



By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 23, 2013 – Strategy and budget realities are two aspects of the Defense Department’s new Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, released today.

The report to Congress is an attempt to chart how unmanned systems fit into the defense of the nation.

“The 2013 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap articulates a vision and strategy for the continued development, production, test, training, operation and sustainment of unmanned systems technology across DOD,” said Dyke Weatherington, the director of the unmanned warfare and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance office at the Pentagon.

“This road map establishes a technological vision for the next 25 years and outlines the actions and technologies for DOD and industry to pursue to intelligently and affordably align with this vision,” he continued.

Unmanned aerial vehicles have received the most press, but unmanned underwater vehicles and ground vehicles are also providing warfighters with incredible capabilities.

Although unmanned vehicles have proved their worth in combat operations throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, current technologies must be expanded and integrated into the sinews of the defense establishment, the report says.

It also calls for unmanned systems to be programs of record in order to achieve “the levels of effectiveness, efficiency, affordability, commonality, interoperability, integration and other key parameters needed to meet future operational requirements.”

Of course, all DOD programs have to face the reality of the budget crunch. “Achieving affordable and cost-effective technical solutions is imperative in this fiscally constrained environment,” the report notes.

Strategy really drives the technology. Unmanned systems will be crucial as the U.S. military shifts its focus to the Asia-Pacific region and puts the air-sea doctrine into effect. In the future, unmanned vehicles will be required to operate in more complex environments involving difficult weather, terrain, distance and airspace. All this will require extensive coordination with allies and host nations, the report says.

“The road map describes the challenges of logistics and sustainment, training and international cooperation while providing insight on the strategic planning and policy, capability needs, technology development and operational environments relevant to the spectrum of unmanned systems,” Weatherington said.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Army Announces Decision on Army Cyber Forces



The United States Army announced today that the Army Cyber Command (ARCYBER) Headquarters will be located at Fort Gordon, Ga., consolidating and coordinating Army cyber and network operations under one commander for the first time in its history.

"Cyber threats are real, sophisticated, growing, and evolving," said ARCYBER's commanding general, Lt. Gen. Edward C. Cardon.  "The Army's decision demonstrates support for unity of command and the importance of cyber to our Army and our nation," he explained.

The Army selected Fort Gordon as the permanent location for ARCYBER Headquarters for operational and cost reasons. Since its establishment in 2010, ARCYBER has been temporarily split-located in seven government buildings and leased space across the national capital region. The move to Fort Gordon will co-locate ARCYBER Headquarters with the Army's Joint Forces Headquarters-Cyber and NSA-Georgia, placing the Army's operational cyber headquarters with the majority its cyber mission forces.  It will require 150 fewer personnel than other potential sites, as well as reduce military construction requirements and costs by 23 percent less than other considered options.

Establishing the Army Cyber Center of Excellence at Fort Gordon will begin by aligning Army cyber proponency within the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, creating institutional unity and a focal point for cyber doctrine and capabilities development, training and innovation.

Before selecting Fort Gordon, the Army evaluated its ability to support U.S. Cyber Command-directed missions and other operational factors such as installation capacity, environmental impacts, and human resource considerations. Community input was also solicited and considered through an environmental assessment public comment period conducted in the fall.

ARCYBER will continue to have a command liaison element co-located with U.S. Cyber Command at Fort George G. Meade, Md.

For more information, please contact Army Cyber Command Public Affairs: Jennifer Downing at 703-428-6396; or Army Public Affairs: Lt. Col. Donald E. Peters at 703-697-7550 or Wayne Hall at 703-693-7589.

Additional information about ARCYBER is available at the command website: http://www.arcyber.army.mil/

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Introduction to Solving Crime in Cyberspace



The December 28, episode of American Heroes Radio features a conversation recognized law enforcement cybercrime expert Art Bowker, the co-author of An Introduction to Solving Crimes in Cyberspace.

Program Date:  December 28, 2013
Program Time: 1500 hours, PACIFIC
Topic: Introduction to Solving Crime in Cyberspace

About the Guest
Art Bowker (@Computerpo) has over 27 years’ experience in law enforcement and corrections; and ,is recognized as an expert in managing cyber-risk in offender populations. In addition to co-writing Investigating Internet Crimes, 1st Edition: An Introduction to Solving Crimes in Cyberspace, he is also the author of The Cybercrime Handbook for Community Corrections: Managing Offender Risk in the 21st Century.

Art is a lifetime member of the High Technology Crime Investigation Association (HTCIA) having served on its Executive Committee, including as President in 2008. In November 2013, he received the Federal Probation and Pretrial Officers Association’s (FPPOA) top award, the Richard F. Doyle Award, for having made the most significant achievement in, or contribution to, the Federal Probation & Pretrial Services System or the broader field of corrections.

Art Bowker received the Thomas E. Gahl, Line Officer of the Year Award (Great Lakes Region Award), which is named in honor of the only U.S. Probation Officer killed in the line of duty.  Both awards centered on his contributions and efforts in managing cybercrime risk. In January 2013, Art was recognized by the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) with the Sam Houston State University Award for his writing contributions to promote awareness of cybercrime and tools for helping the community corrections field combat computer crime. He is a member of both FPPOA and APPA. You can learn more about Art, his work and interest at his website, Computerpo.com.

About the Watering Hole

The Watering Hole is police slang for a location cops go off-duty to blow off steam and talk about work and life.  Sometimes funny; sometimes serious; but, always interesting.
           
About the Host
Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster was a sworn member of the Los Angeles Police Department for 24 years.  He retired in 2003 at the rank of Lieutenant.  He holds a bachelor’s from the Union Institute and University in Criminal Justice Management and a Master’s Degree in Public Financial Management from California State University, Fullerton; and, has completed his doctoral course work. Raymond E. Foster has been a part-time lecturer at California State University, Fullerton and Fresno; and is currently a Criminal Justice Department chair, faculty advisor and lecturer with the Union Institute and University.  He has experience teaching upper division courses in law enforcement, public policy, law enforcement technology and leadership.  Raymond is an experienced author who has published numerous articles in a wide range of venues including magazines such as Government Technology, Mobile Government, Airborne Law Enforcement Magazine, and Police One.  He has appeared on the History Channel and radio programs in the United States and Europe as subject matter expert in technological applications in law enforcement.


Program Contact Information
Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.), MPA
909.599.7530

Thursday, December 12, 2013

DARPA Takes Robots to Disaster Mitigation Trials



By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 12, 2013 – Next week, 17 teams will take their multi-limbed, capable-looking robots through eight realistic disaster-response tasks that will make up the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Robotics Challenge Trials Dec. 21-22 at Florida’s Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The best performers will determine the baseline for the state of robotics, Dr. Gill Pratt, DARPA’s Robotics Challenge program manager, said during a recent teleconference. And DARPA will fund up to eight of the highest-scoring teams for another year as they move on to the DRC Finals in 2014, after which one team will receive a $2 million prize.

“The purpose of the program is to develop technology that can help make us much more robust to natural and manmade disasters,” Pratt explained.

“In particular,” he added, “we’re looking at robotic technology that can allow us to mitigate the extent of a disaster during the first hours and days while the disaster is still unfolding.”

DARPA was directly inspired to create the program by the 2011 accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, Pratt said, which was caused when an earthquake and tsunami knocked out backup power systems needed to cool the plant’s reactors, causing three of them to undergo fuel melting, hydrogen explosions and radioactive releases.

“During the first 24 hours there,” he said, “if only human beings had been able to go into the reactor buildings and vent built-up gas that was accumulating inside the reactors, the explosions that occurred might have been prevented and the disaster would not have been as severe.”

That’s just one example, Pratt added.

“We don’t know what the next disaster will be, so the technology we’re trying to develop [will] allow human beings and robots working together to have an effect on evolving disasters in environments that are too dangerous for human beings to go into by themselves,” he said.

DARPA is trying to improve robotic mobility and dexterity to achieve the following goals for disaster-response robots, Pratt said:

-- The robots have to work in environments that are engineered for people, including environments that are degraded by an evolving disaster;

-- The robots have to be able to use human tools, everything from screwdrivers to fire trucks that may be available in the disaster area; and

-- The robots must have an improved human-to-robot interface, to reduce the amount of training needed by personnel who are experts in handling disasters but not necessarily in handling robots.

“We started the program with over 100 teams and had a first event in June that was a virtual robotics challenge held in simulation,” Pratt said. Since then and through several design reviews, DARPA has narrowed the field to 17.

DARPA is funding 13 of the 17 teams, and four teams are funding their own work, the program manager said. Part of the funding includes a high-mobility humanoid robot called Atlas. It’s funded by the Defense Department and built by Boston Dynamics, an engineering company that began as a spinoff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The teams represent five countries and organizations that range from large and small businesses and hardware and software firms to universities and government agencies like NASA, which has two teams participating in the trials.

Each of the eight tasks the robots must perform has a couple of steps. The first task is to drive a utility vehicle over a short course that requires turning, then the robot must get out of the vehicle and walk, Pratt said. Second is to travel over rough terrain that goes from easy to medium to hard. Third is to move rubble from in front of a doorway and go through the door.

The fourth task is to walk through three successively more difficult-to-open doors. Fifth is to climb a ladder. Sixth is to go to a wall, pick up a tool and use it to cut an access hole through the wall without damaging infrastructure drawn on the wall. Seventh is to find three valves and close them. Eighth is to pull a fire hose a short distance and connect it to a standpipe.

The DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials are free and open to the public -- a public whose experience with robots may tend toward science fiction, Pratt worries, like the Terminator and R2D2, or lately even the Almost Human MX-263 combat-model android. And what will the public see next week at the Miami-Homestead Speedway?

Not all of the robots will be able to do every task, Pratt explained. Even those that can do most tasks will be getting a lot of help from their human operators. And the robots will be slow, he said.

“Right now, where we are is that robots are roughly at the same level of mobility and dexterity as a one-year-old child,” Pratt said, adding that each robot will have 30 minutes to do each of the eight tasks.

“What we’re doing with the DRC trials is we’re getting a calibration point,” he said. “We’re trying to understand the state of the art of the field.”

Today, Pratt said, real robots for the most part either work in on stationary bases in factories doing very clearly defined repetitive tasks or they are used in laboratories in schools in controlled environments. If robots are used outdoors they’re typically run through something called teleoperation, where a person dictates every move the robot makes each tenth of a second or more.

“We’re trying to advance that technology and move things from teleoperation to something known as task-level autonomy, where rather than ‘Move forward a tenth of an inch, move left a tenth of an inch,’ you tell the robot, ‘Open that door,’ and the robot perceives the handle on the door, reaches out, turns the handle and opens the door.”

Pratt said that’s the level of supervision he and others believe will be most effective for people and disaster-response robots to use to interact with each other.

Based on DARPA’s experience with its 2004 Grand Challenge for driverless vehicles, the program manager said robots that qualify for the 2014 DARPA Robotic Challenge Finals in 2014 should be much more capable than this year’s contenders.

“Let me paint a picture of where we hope we’ll get to,” Pratt said.

Take the eight tasks from this year’s trials -- going through doors, going up the ladder, moving rubble out of the way -- and imagine mixing the tasks into a single rather mission the robot must complete, he said.

“Let’s say we have a site that is a mockup of a disaster and … we give the robot a task: go rescue a person -- actually a dummy -- who’s hidden under a pile of rocks,” Pratt said. “To get to the pile of rocks there are ladders in the way, there are rubble fields, there are vehicles it can use.”

The desire is to physically emulate such a scenario roughly a year from now, and to have human beings in a remote location, able to control the robot over a degraded communication link, he said.

Pratt said DARPA is also focusing beyond search and rescue on operations that can help mediate disasters -- for example if there is a chemical leak in a factory and the chemicals are too corrosive for people to deal with.

“One possibility is putting people inside protective suits, but that only works for a very short time until oxygen runs out or it gets too hot,” he said. “A better idea is to separate the robot from the human being, have the person in a safe place and, despite having a bad communication level, allow the robot to do what a person in a suit would have done.”

Pratt added, “That’s our goal. How far we’ll get, we don’t know. Part of the purpose of the trials is to calibrate us as to where the field is now so we can design the finals to be a just-hard-enough test.”