Even at MIT, it’s a challenge to get robots to act human

A team from MIT is taking on the DARPA Robotics Challenge and finding it is hard to take robots out of their typical industrial environments into the real world.

Robin Deits shouts it not as a rallying cry, but as a warning to everyone nearby that the 6-foot tall, 330-pound Atlas robot hanging from a steel beam is about to wake up. A compressor starts to whine, pumping the hydraulic fluid that will enable Atlas to stand and move on its own. A bright orange warning light on the top of its head starts to blink. Once the team of MIT professors, students, and research assistants is convinced Atlas is ready to stand on its own, Steve Proulx lowers it to the floor using a rope and pulley system.

Inside this cavernous shed on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus, Atlas’s big task today is something most people do dozens of times daily without thinking: open a door and walk through it. The first time I watch the robot try, it nearly falls over, and Proulx has to pull the rope taut to keep the machine from hitting the floor. There are only eight of these robots in existence, and they cost more than $1 million each.

MIT’s Atlas bot and the accompanying software that enables it to pick up objects, use power tools, and drive a car, will be among 17 competitors next weekend at the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials in Florida. (DARPA is the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — the same folks who brought you the Internet.) It’s essentially the NFL Playoffs for the world’s most sophisticated robots — with a lot less hype and a lot more purpose. Eight teams will make it to the finals in 2014.

The challenge was designed to encourage university teams, private companies, and government agencies like NASA to radically improve the ability of robots to operate in the real world, and assist with disaster scenarios like the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion or the Fukushima reactor meltdown in Japan.