Friday, February 14, 2014

The Real Life Terminator (and why my sister's life currently revolves around robots)


In my attempts to get "caught up" on blogging I've been covering some events that took place in the past couple of months. I mentioned in my birthday re-cap that my brother-in-law's school/work brought him to South Florida in late December...and this post will expand on that theme. :) If real life robots interest you then read on!

Have any of you heard of the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC)? Unless you're really big into robotics and/or happen to work for the Department of Defense my guess is that you haven't. Truth be told, I knew nothing about this challenge until I learned that my brother-in-law was competing in it with his lab at MIT (where he is completing his Doctoral work).

I could attempt to explain the DRC, but their website already has a succinct summary that does a better job than I possibly could. So without further ado, here is a little background about the competition (emphasis mine):
The DRC is a competition of robot systems and software teams vying to develop robots capable of assisting humans in responding to natural and man-made disasters. It was designed to be extremely difficult. Participating teams, representing some of the most advanced robotics research and development organizations in the world, are collaborating and innovating on a very short timeline to develop the hardware, software, sensors, and human-machine control interfaces that will enable their robots to complete a series of challenge tasks selected by DARPA for their relevance to disaster response. Three sequential DRC events place equal emphasis on hardware and software:
  • the Virtual Robotics Challenge occurred in June 2013 and tested software teams’ ability to effectively guide a simulated robot through three sample tasks in a virtual environment;
  • the DRC Trials occur December 20-21, 2013 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, where teams guided their robots through eight individual, physical tasks that tested mobility, manipulation, dexterity, perception, and operator control mechanisms;
  • the DRC Finals (date TBD) will require robots to attempt a circuit of consecutive physical tasks, with degraded communications between the robots and their operators; the winning team will receive a $2 million prize.
Technologies resulting from the DRC will transform the field of robotics and catapult forward development of robots featuring task-level autonomy that can operate in the hazardous, degraded conditions common in disaster zones.

If you haven't guessed by now, my brother-in-law's team passed the first challenge in June and also moved forward from the DRC Trials back in December (only the top 8 teams go on to the finals and they placed 4th)! The December competition is what brought my brother-in-law to South Florida while we were living there...and in turn brought my sister and nieces to stay with us for a week right around my birthday! :) 

Michael, Gabriel, and I were able to make it to the second day of competition and had a lot of fun watching MIT's robot complete the "ladder task," which my brother-in-law was in charge of controlling from a garage out of sight. Not to mention, there were some pretty innovative robot designs that were really exciting to watch (if you happen to appreciate robots, that is). Speaking of cool robots, check out this Atlas robot, dubbed the "real life Terminator" (the one MIT competes with!):

Atlas robot: the "real life Terminator"

Now that I've written about my birthday, the week my sister stayed with us, and the DRC Trials, you all probably have a better idea what I was doing with my time back in Advent (besides preparing for the birth of Christ, that is). The date for the DRC finals is TBD, but if you all could say some prayers for my sister and brother-in-law as he continues to work hard with his lab I'd surely appreciate it! As you can imagine, my brother-in-law's work (and therefore my sister's entire household) has been consumed by this competition for many, many months and we are all so proud of his team for moving onto the finals! Goooo Team MIT!

P.S. Happy St. Valentine's Day!

Michael and me (each with Gabriel) cheering on Team MIT at the DRC Trials in December 2013

"The unpredictability of the real world requires a robot that can maneuver effectively in environments it has not previously encountered, use whatever human tools are on hand without the need for extensive reprogramming, and continue to operate even when degraded communications render motion-level control by a human not feasible."


  1. Yay! Thanks for the recap and for the prayers!!! E now prays for atlas every night. :) miss you!

    1. TOO ADORABLE! I love your children. And you, of course!