LONG BEACH, CA – The night before the last day of the ANA Avatar XPrize robotics competition in Long Beach, CA, the Northeastern team was burning midnight oil. The team of 10 made their own handheld robot hand prototypes, fixed the left-arm drive, and solved software issues all before competition on Saturday afternoon.
On Friday, the team watched their robot, Rubalto, fail to complete the third task in the competition, which is to run a manual drill to open an access panel on a Mars-like obstacle course. The next day, after making improvements and testing the robot from 6 a.m. to its final run at 1:30 p.m., the Northeastern team watched the robot complete the course in 21 minutes and 8 seconds, winning $1 million in third place among 17 finalists from around the scientist.
said David Nguyen, a mechanical engineering student and one of two undergraduate students on the team. “During the race we really hoped everyone would realize that and in the end the stars lined up and everything paid off. It was obviously very stressful to watch because all your blood, sweat and tears, but it was really rewarding.”
After the competition, the team triumphantly led Robalto, a large black box on wheels with hydraulically operated levers, a small camera and a screen where the operator’s face appears, to return to the “garage” where they were stationed during the two-day finals. While the core platform for the research lab was provided by MassRobotics, the rest of the robot was built by students, who ordered parts for the system as well as 3D-printed parts for the 3D-printed arms and handles designed by the entire team.
The Northeastern team began its run with the ANA Avatar XPrize – developing physical, human-operated robotic “avatar” systems that can complete tasks and replicate a person’s senses, actions, and presence in a remote location in real time. Held at the Long Beach Convention Center – over a year ago, he competed in the semifinals in Miami and won 133,000 dollars.
Led by Professors Taskin Padir and Peter Whitney, team members spent nearly 60 hours a week working on Robalto in the professors’ research labs, studying touch mechanics with Whitney and experimental robotics with Padir.
This year, the team received minimal instructions, knowing that their robot would be wirelessly controlled by a judge who was evaluating the system’s convenience, ease of use, and connectivity.
Each team’s robot traversed a straight path filled with jagged boulders, and completed five tasks to win: receive and respond to instructions given by a person standing in front of the robot, use one end to tap the light switch, pick up cans and place the heaviest one in the slot, perform an exercise to disassemble the access panel, and finally Reach behind a curtain and retrieve a jagged boulder, lifting it up to the cheering crowd.
Although it may sound simple, more than half of the teams fail to complete the course within 25 minutes.
“We had 45 minutes of operator training beforehand,” Nguyen said. “We basically went through how the bot works as well as how best to handle the tasks. Our in-session system was specifically designed to convey your immediate presence. It’s in the nature of the competition that you just try to use your hands like you normally would, so that kind of intuition seemed natural.”
The judge operating Robalto sat in another room looking at a long screen the team had created with a feed from the robot’s camera. Like a puppeteer, the operator would put her arms in “environmental gloves” that wirelessly connected to the robot’s arms, and used her feet on the pedal to move the robot around the track.
PhD Mechanical Engineer. Student Evelyn Mendoza said the most difficult task to complete was rehearsals, a task that confused the team on day one. She said building a robot that lacks virtual reality capabilities, which several other teams have employed, has also been a challenge in the competition.
“It was really hard to be very immersive, so we found some tricks like getting the laser to line up with wherever you move the arms,” Mendoza said. “Training the operator to realize what they have to do was a little tricky, but once they had enough training they got it.”
Between Friday and Saturday runs, the team emphasized features of the robot’s handles to the operator to avoid mistakes made the day before in the exercise, Ph.D. Student Roy Lu said.
“We kept stressing those methods and made sure if she had any questions to ask us so we could get there,” Lu said. “Hardware-wise, we modified our hand a bit to make it easier to integrate and pull the drill trigger.”
In real-world operations, a system like the Robalto can be used in the medical field, used to assist living patients, used to explore the deep sea or to handle hazardous materials or explosives.
What sets Robalto Team Northeastern apart from the other 17 robots in the competition is hydraulic actuation, using air and water to create a precise hydraulic system to power the machine, said graduate computer science student Stephen Alt.
Alt said the robot would have done better with more testing, but it wouldn’t change anything else about Robalto.
“I think our system is very good and very unique,” Alt said. “It will just end up being more testing and more experience with it. I think we could have framed our robot to be perfect for the five tasks given to us, but I don’t think that is the spirit of the competition.”
Northeastern was defeated only by the German robotics team NimbRo from the University of Bonn, which completed the course in a pioneering five minutes, and Pollen Robotics from Bordeaux, France. First place received $5 million in damages while second place received $2 million.
After taking home his third place award, Whitney said he is glad the team’s hard work is paying off and can be shown successfully.
“In every part of the challenge I can see the individual efforts of all the team members,” he said. “I am really happy that not only did we complete all the tasks, but we had a worker who was skilled enough to operate and learned how to operate the system at a very high level very quickly. It demonstrated many unique aspects of our system that were not required to perform well in competition, but required for a group A wide range of tasks. In our recent career, the most exciting part for me was actually seeing, not only did we complete all the tasks, but we did it in a lot of style.”
Henry Mayne, an undergraduate electrical engineering student on the team, said the team all worked and struggled together to build a successful robot.
“When we were all on the track and saw the robot grab the rock, we hugged and we all jumped up and down. We were relieved that all our work as a team paid off,” Maine said. “This wouldn’t be possible if no one was here.”
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