Drexel team competing to build robot for nuclear emergencies

Daniel Lofaro operates the hand movement of Hubo2 . Competitors must program a robot to accomplish eight tasks, such as driving to the scene, climbing over rubble, shutting off a valve.
Daniel Lofaro operates the hand movement of Hubo2 . Competitors must program a robot to accomplish eight tasks, such as driving to the scene, climbing over rubble, shutting off a valve. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 28, 2012

 Ordinarily, it is no big deal for Cheongki Jeong to climb into a car and drive. But what if he needed to get to the scene of a nuclear emergency?

That is why Jeong and a team of Drexel University engineers are starting to prepare driving lessons for a motorist that is unfazed by radiation: a robot.

Clad in a black bodysuit covered with dots of reflective tape, Jeong climbed in and out of a golf cart seat the other day, again and again, a suite of cameras tracking his moves so they could be translated for a robot.

Drexel is leading a team of 10 schools in an international competition sponsored by the research arm of the Pentagon - prompted in part by the 2011 meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, where much of the devastation might have been contained had robots gotten to the scene quickly.

Competitors must program a robot to accomplish eight tasks - among them driving to the scene, climbing over a pile of rubble, using a tool to break through a wall, and shutting off a valve. Specialized robots have previously accomplished tasks similar to some on the list, but for one robot to tackle all eight would be a daunting challenge, said Drexel's Paul Oh.

"It's pushing the frontiers of robotics beyond anything that we know in any center, be it academic, industry, or government agency," said Oh, an engineering professor and the team leader.

The Drexel-led team, which also includes Swarthmore College and the University of Delaware, has an early leg up on some of the competition. The group learned this fall that its proposal was one of seven to win $3 million each in project funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Another team, led by Lockheed Martin's Advanced Technology Laboratories, based in Cherry Hill, won an initial $375,000 from DARPA to develop software for its robot, in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

In addition to the early funding, Drexel has another edge. Unlike some teams, it already has seven working "Hubo" robots, which were built by partners at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. The machines, roughly the size of a 10-year-old boy, are among the most advanced humanoid robots yet developed.

Still, getting ready for the multiphase competition, which includes events toward the end of next year and in 2014, will require fast action.

A lab on the ground floor of Drexel's Bossone building already is swarming with activity, with engineers scurrying amid several Hubos in various stages of assembly.

Daniel Lofaro, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering, has started programming one of the Hubos so its hands can turn a valve handle or steering wheel - right hand up, left hand down, or vice versa.

Robert Ellenberg, a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering, is conferring with fellow team members at Purdue and Indiana Universities about how to make a robot climb a ladder.

The short answer? With difficulty.

The knees get in the way, for one thing. So the group is discussing the option of having the robot climb up while facing backward.

Other members are working with a laser-based sensor that they plan to mount on the robot's head, allowing it to measure the distance to obstacles.

Then there is Jeong, climbing in and out of the golf-cart seat in his black bodysuit. Eighteen cameras follow the bits of reflective tape attached to his clothing, recording his movements so they can be translated into instructions for Hubo.

The robot's joints do not twist and turn in as many directions as a human's. So Jeong climbs into the seat with a precise, almost stiff series of motions, being careful not to exceed the capabilities of his metallic alter ego.

"I try to imagine as if I am a robot," said Jeong, who is pursuing an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering.

After the tsunami that struck Japan, radiation levels at Fukushima were initially too high for humans to safely enter the site. A robot would have been ideal.

"The tragic thing was, if they were able to get something there just to shut off a valve within hours of the breach," said Drexel's Oh, "it could have prevented so much more damage."

For the competition, the teams do not yet know exactly what kind of vehicle their robots will be required to drive. So, like a human getting used to a rental car, the robots must be prepared to adapt, said team member Christopher Rasmussen, an associate professor of computer and information sciences at Delaware.

How far away is the gas pedal? How fast will the car accelerate? What is its turning radius?

Team member Matt Zucker, an assistant professor of engineering at Swarthmore, is working on getting Hubo to open a door. In preparation, his students are walking around campus with a spring scale to measure how much force it takes to open various doors.

In addition to writing computer programs for each of the eight tasks, the engineers likely will need to modify the robot's limbs for greater strength and dexterity.

Other members of the Drexel-led team include Columbia University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Ohio State University, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

The winning team will get $2 million, and Oh would be happy to win. But he seems almost more enthusiastic about the project's potential to teach students and engage the public's interest in science. It also offers a taste of the future.

"These students," Oh said, "will be living in a world every day interacting with robots."

At the lab in the Bossone building, that future is already here.


Watch Drexel engineers work on a robot that could help in a nuclear disaster at www.philly.com/robot


Contact Tom Avril at 215-854-2430 or tavril@phillynews.com .

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