‘Buddy’ the robot makes cut for $2 million
A home-grown team of volunteer scientists and technicians compete in Florida just a few days before Christmas for a chance to win $2 million from the Department of Defense.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is offering $2 million to the designer of a robot that can assist first responders in the event of an emergency.
The goal of the contest is to develop ground robots capable of executing complex tasks in dangerous, degraded, human-engineered environments, the defense department said.
Think Fukushima nuclear disaster.
The self-funded Team Mojavaton consists of undergraduate students, professors, and professional engineers based at The Incubator Center in Grand Junction.
The team made the cut from 40 to four for the semifinal challenge Dec. 20 and 21 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida, team leader Jim Crittenden said.
“We’ve had to be more creative in our design and had to rely on team members doing the work on their own time and on our sponsors for their help,” Crittenden said. “Almost all of the team members have other, full-time jobs, so they do this work in their spare time. Nobody on the team is being paid for their efforts. We do this because we enjoy it.”
The team’s name, created by Dave Laffite, combines Mojave Desert with the word “automaton” and came from the team’s first attempt to build an autonomous car to race in the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge in the Mojave Desert, Crittenden said.
Team Mojavaton will compete against teams from Carnegie Mellon University, Virginia Tech and NASA, each of which received $3 million to design and build a robot for the competition, he said.
Based on the robots’ performances at the semifinal trials, the Defense Advanced Research Products Agency will narrow the field of teams that continue on to the Robotics Challenge Finals in December 2014.
The winner of that competition will go home with a check for $2 million.
“We are clearly an underdog team in this contest,” Crittenden said. “The other teams — Carnegie Mellon, Virginia Tech, NASA, MIT, SCHAFT, and others — are outstanding teams. But you can count on us to give it our best shot.”
Whether the team advances this year depends on a 5-foot tall robot named Buddy.
“There are a couple of ways that Buddy is special,” Crittenden said. “First, he has four legs. Most of the other robots have two legs. Second, we have made extensive use of 3D printing. We have used a StrataSys Dimension 1200es 3D printer for as many of Buddy’s components as possible. Third, he’s very light.”
Some of the other teams will be using robots that weigh as much as 330 pounds, while Buddy weighs in at only 37 pounds, he said.
“When he stands on his tip toes, he is 4 feet, 8 inches tall. His wingspan — holding his arms out to the sides and measuring fingertips to fingertips — is 6 feet,” Crittenden said.
Buddy does not make autonomous decisions like the car entered in the 2005 challenge. There is a human operator that must tell him what to do.
“We work to make those commands as simple as possible, but at the end of the day he will always only respond to the commands from his human operator,” he said.
Buddy’s purpose is very clear. He is designed to perform tasks where he could assist in the event of an emergency.
“The Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan is an example of where this type of robot could have provided valuable assistance,” Crittenden said.
Competitors are expected to focus on robots that can use standard tools and equipment commonly available in human environments, ranging from hand tools to vehicles, “with an emphasis on adaptability to tools with diverse specifications,” the defense department said.
Crittenden formerly worked as director of operations for C5 Medical Werks and as manufacturing manager at CoorsTek in Grand Junction, where he championed lean manufacturing and factory automation.
He formed Team Mojavaton in 2004 to compete in the DARPA Grand Challenge contest for autonomous vehicles. He now works full time on the Robotics Challenge. He funds many of the team’s activities from his own pocket.
“I don’t have to work anymore,” Crittenden said. “I get to do what I enjoy.”