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CMU's CHIMP to go where humans shouldn't

| Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, 1:06 a.m.
CHIMP, a 400-pound robot, demonstrates its ability to clean up a hypothetical disaster area in the National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
CHIMP, a 400-pound robot, demonstrates its ability to clean up a hypothetical disaster area in the National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville.
Carnegie Mellon University robotics engineers Jordan Brindza, David Stager and Chris Dellin look over the data from testing  CHIMP, 400-pound humanoid robot, in the National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville. CHIMP stands for CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Carnegie Mellon University robotics engineers Jordan Brindza, David Stager and Chris Dellin look over the data from testing CHIMP, 400-pound humanoid robot, in the National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville. CHIMP stands for CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform.
A computer graphic shows the nexts moves for CHIMP, a 400-pound humanoid robot that will compete in a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency challenge on Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, in Florida.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
A computer graphic shows the nexts moves for CHIMP, a 400-pound humanoid robot that will compete in a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency challenge on Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, in Florida.
A Carnegie Mellon University robotics engineer holds the controls to a crane securing CHIMP, 400-pound humanoid robot. CHIMP stands for CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
A Carnegie Mellon University robotics engineer holds the controls to a crane securing CHIMP, 400-pound humanoid robot. CHIMP stands for CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform.

At 5 feet 2 inches tall, 400 pounds and with a 10-foot wing span, a bright red metal robot named CHIMP that looks as though it escaped from a giant Erector set, stretches the definition of “humanoid.”

That's OK with researchers from Carnegie Mellon University's Tartan Rescue Team, who spent the past 14 months building, writing software and testing the prototype for a humanoid disaster-response robot at CMU's National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville.

Performance, not appearance, is the focus as CHIMP attempts the final tasks in qualifying trials in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's DARPA Robotics Challenge Saturday in Homestead, Fla.

DARPA spokesman Gill Pratt said the agency launched the challenge to accelerate the development of a disaster response robot after the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster highlighted the need for a robot that can use tools designed for humans and go into environments too dangerous for them.

“There's no doubt these challenges drive the technology. They accelerate it faster than it would otherwise develop,” Tartan Rescue Team Leader and NREC Director Tony Stentz said last week as members of the team put the slow, lumbering robot through its final paces before leaving for Florida.

CHIMP operates with 39 motors and has four limbs. But it doesn't walk. Instead it moves forward and backward on tank-like treads attached to its limbs and can bend over and move on all four treads to tackle uneven terrain.

Its most powerful motor can lift 150 pounds, but nothing is fast. Millions of calculations are involved in every movement, Stentz said.

Two spinning laser range finders on either side of CHIMP's stubby head send 3-D images of the robot's environment to Tartan Rescue Team members seated at computer screens in a remote trailer.

The team is among six, including groups from Drexel, Virginia Tech, NASA, Schaft, Inc. and Raytheon, that DARPA selected to design and build robots for the competition. Another 11 teams were given robots and competed to write operating software.

The 17 teams are vying for 8 slots in the Robotics Challenge finals next year and a chance at a $2 million prize for the winning team.

The robots have eight tasks to complete, including opening doors, climbing ladders, removing debris and closing valves and are allotted 30 minutes for each task.

While robots have been built to complete specific repetitive tasks, building one to open doors and use power tools designed for humans elevated the task to a new level.

“Humans are very capable machines. It's a challenge to develop a robot to achieve that level of ability,” Stentz said, glancing at the squat red robot as it slowly hefted a two-by-four blocking its path.

A team of 10 CMU scientists and researchers, funded by $3 million in grants from DARPA, worked fulltime on the project for more than a year. Another 40 CMU faculty, staffers and students assisted in the effort.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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