A giant leap for robotkind
When humanoid robots one day build habitats on Mars for astronauts, it’s likely they’
ll owe much of their capabilities to cutting-edge computer programs developed by
scientists from Pensacola’s IHMC...

By David Tortorano
October 2015
One day in the not too distant future, a spacecraft will land on an alien planet and a
team of rugged humanoid robots will leave the craft and begin building habitats for
their partners, the far more fragile human beings who will eventually, inevitably follow.

The robots may be autonomous, or they may be avatars controlled by humans
orbiting above. Either scenario is possible, and will mark a giant leap for robotkind.


This sci-fi vision is on its way to becoming science fact as teams gear up to create
robots that will be the hard-working partners of astronauts. And one organization
from the Gulf Coast that’s in the thick of it is the Florida Institute for Human and
Machine Cognition in downtown Pensacola.

It’s highly likely that space-traveling robots will owe their ability to walk and climb
obstacles without losing their balance to the scientists and technicians at IHMC who
have proven they have the right stuff when it comes to creating locomotion
algorithms for robots.

IHMC, which started as a part of the University of West Florida in 1990, has earned
an international reputation for its work in human and machine interaction. Ken Ford,
president and CEO of IHMC, says the organization has been working on locomotion
systems for legged robots for 13 years.

Its expertise in the field is already well-known. NASA has already tapped IHMC for its
expertise to help it develop walking capabilities for future space robots.

“We have a grant from the National Robotics Initiative and NASA’s Johnson Space
Center that started three years ago,” said Peter Neuhaus, a senior research scientist
at IHMC who, with colleague Jerry Pratt, heads up the robotic locomotion team.

One of the goals of the National Robotics Initiative, announced in 2011, was to create
robots that would assist in missions in hazardous environments. The grant is aimed
at co-exploration by humans and robots, with the first goal of creating avatars
controlled by humans.

IHMC’s expertise was underscored during the multi-year, multi-phase DARPA
Robotics Challenge, launched in 2012 in response to Japan’s Fukushima nuclear
disaster. The idea was to create robots that could help go into areas too dangerous
to humans. IHMC, as one of the early leaders in the competition, was provided with
the Atlas robot, created by Boston Dynamics. IHMC developed the program to allow
the six-foot tall robot, called “Running Man,” to perform a range of tasks necessary in
responding to a disaster, from opening doors to cutting holes and climbing over an
uneven debris field.

The winner of the final June 2015 competition in California was a robot created by
South Korea. IHMC came in second, best of all the U.S. teams, which included others
using an Atlas robot. Significantly, Running Man was able to do all tasks while
keeping its balance.

“It was an extremely high profile event and certainly helped raise IHMC’s image
outside the scientific engineering community,” said Ford.

Now that IHMC expertise is being used by NASA to provide some of the brain power,
so to speak, for NASA’s impressive-looking Valkyrie humanoid robot that will one day
help astronauts explore distant worlds.

Valkyrie, which many have pointed out has distinctly female features, did participate
in the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials, and shared last place with two other teams
after scoring zero points during the 2013 challenge in South Florida. Val didn’t take
part in the California competition, but two of them were on display and performed
some tasks.

One Valkyrie robot, known by the mundane designation R5, spent August and much
of September at IHMC so the team could work on its bipedal control algorithm. NASA’
s plan is the IHMC’s expertise in locomotion will be used in all the R5 robots that will
be at the center of a new competition recently launched by NASA.

Called the Space Robotics Challenge, it aims to improve humanoid robots so they
can go to Mars and help humans. One of the anticipated missions is to send a team
of NASA’s Valkyrie robots to Mars ahead of humans so they can build habitats for
astronauts.

The NASA competition is in large part building upon the DARPA Robotics Challenge.
NASA recently issued a research announcement to find one or two host sites that will
receive Valkyrie robots. To be eligible, a host site must have participated in the DRC
and be a U.S. university. IHMC is ineligible to be a host site because of the university
requirement.

In the summer of 2016, NASA plans to have the virtual part of the Space Robotics
Challenge, where teams will use computers to see how well their software performs.

The top teams - how many has not been announced - then will be selected to
participate further in the SRC. They will have access to the Valkyrie robot by
traveling to one of the host sites to test their algorithms on the robot.

In the fall of 2017, the teams will compete in the Space Robotics Challenge finals,
performing tasks useful in space exploration, like climbing into and out of a structure,
down a ladder to a rocky surface, and connecting power sources.

The goal is to improve the autonomy of walking robots, so they can solve problems
on their own, without the intervention of a human controller. The reason is simple. As
distances increase it’s takes longer for a command to be received and executed.
Autonomy eliminates that problem. But that, said Neuhaus, is a ways off.

While it’s unclear whether IHMC will participate in the NASA challenge, it is,
nonetheless, a key participant. Neuhaus said IHMC’s role is to develop the walking
and balance capabilities so that the teams that compete do not have to become
experts in developing that part of the robot. Part of that task is developing that part of
the robot’s software.

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