They weren't among the top winners but two Virginia Tech-affiliated robots both made impacts – and learned valuable lessons for future research –  at the worldwide DARPA Robotics Challenge in Los Angeles, California. 

Two robotics teams with ties to the College of Engineering competed in the June 5-6 competition, an effort started by the U.S. Department of Defense’s research unit to build prototype robots to respond to possible catastrophic events.

The Terrestrial Robotics Engineering & Controls Laboratory, based in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, but comprised of students from throughout the college, brought its self-built humanoid robot ESCHER under the banner Team VALOR. The robot – roughly 5 foot 10 inches – was fabricated at Virginia Tech's Goodwin Hall at the beginning of this year.

Blacksburg-based TORC Robotics, a company spun off from the College of Engineering, brought the Boston Dynamics-built Atlas robot Florian as Team ViGIR. The team boasted an international spin, comprised of two German-based universities, Technische Universitat Darmstadt and Leibniz University Hanover, and Oregon State University, Cornell University, and Virginia Tech’s Center for Human-Computer Interaction, part of the Department of Computer Science.

"I couldn't be prouder of  the two Virginia Tech teams that built ViGIR and VALOR," said Richard Benson, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech. "In particular, the young men and women of the TREC Lab have worked very much in the public eye over the last year – quite literally, because of their glass-walled lab at Goodwin Hall. ViGIR and VALOR represent Virginia Tech engineering at its creative best."

ESCHER – short for Electric Series Compliant Humanoid for Emergency Response, and named after M.C. Escher – wowed crowds at the Los Angeles County Fairplex by walking roughly 200 feet untethered along a loose dirt path onto pavement. Further, the two teams impressed with a strong collaborative effort. 

Team ViGIR's Florian completed three of the obstacle tasks set for robots, including driving a vehicle and opening and walking through a door.

In all, 23 teams – including professional robotics companies from around the world – competed for $2 million as the grand prize. 

Despite the high-level nature of the challenge, most teams readily shared information and helped each other if problems arose. 

A competing team, Team Hector of Technische Universitat Darmstadt, used a hand-like gripper designed and developed in the TREC lab. As well, ViGIR and Hector shared with Team VALOR the operating software they designed and built. That same software was used not only for ESCHER, but another project headed by the TREC lab, a U.S. Navy firefighting robot named SAFFiR.

“One of the things that has accelerated development of ESCHER is having open source software like the robot operating system and integrated packages, which allows for faster integration of functionality,” said Brian Lattimer, a professor of mechanical engineering and one of the three faculty advising the ESCHER project. “Through this common platform, we were able to more easily collaborate with team ViGIR on software and incorporate other open source code from teams.”

Lattimer teamed with professor Tomonari Furukawa and associate professor Alexander Leonessa, both of mechanical engineering, on the DARPA project. Furukawa was the project lead. All three faculty members said the DARPA project will inform and boost current projects – including the SAFFiR project, funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research.

“Escher has now been shown to have robust walking on complex terrains untethered,” said Lattimer, “The TREC lab will further build on the software to move around cluttered indoor environments using hands and feet as well as improved object manipulation.”

“One direction is to improve the robot for its use in human environments,” said Furukawa, adding that future incarnations of ESCHER and spin-off robots would include more biologically-inspired designs and localization and mapping capabilities. 

Added Leonessa: “The next thing is the opportunity to use this kind of technology for rehabilitation engineering with particular emphasis on exoskeletons, to help people with paralysis and prostheses for amputees. That’s what we want to do next with the technology.”

TORC Robotics, leader of the ViGIR group with robot Florian, plans to use technology learned from the DARPA Robotics Challenge to further its focus on producing automated vehicle systems for equipment in the mining, construction, and military sectors. 

“TORC has identified a number of spin-off technologies from [the robotics challenge] including a robust communication architecture and novel user interfaces,” said company CEO Michael Fleming, an alumnus of the College of Engineering, before the event. “These technologies will be incorporated into other products and projects in commercial markets.”

As of June 6, it was not known if Team ViGIR would be able to keep the $2 million Atlas robot the team called Florian, named after the patron saint of firefighters. David Conner, an engineer with TORC and team leader, in addition to being a Virginia Tech engineering alumnus, said Technische Universitat Darmstadt has written a proposal to bring the robot to Germany for further research and development.

The competition was inspired by the 2011 earthquake in Japan that led to the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear engineering plant. That event highlighted limits by humans in responding to certain disasters. DARPA has said robotic response units could allow humans to quickly respond from a remote, safe location, thus saving lives and potentially millions or more of dollars in damage to infrastructure.

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.

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