Assemble Your (Virtual) Robotic Underground Exploration Team

It’s amazing how many things have managed to move online in recent weeks, many with a beneficial side effect of eliminating travel making them more accessible to everyone around the world. Though some events had a virtual track before it was cool, among them the DARPA Subterranean Challenge (SubT) robotics competition. Recent additions to their “Hello World” tutorials (with promise of more to come) have continued to lower the barrier of entry for aspiring roboticists.

We all love watching physical robots explore the real world, which is why SubT’s “Systems Track” gets most of the attention. But such participation is necessarily restricted to people who have the resources to build and transport bulky hardware to the competition site, which is just a tiny subset of all the brilliant minds who can contribute. Hence the “Virtual Track” which is accessible to anyone with a computer that meets requirements. (64-bit Ubuntu 18 with NVIDIA GPU) The tutorials help get us up and running on SubT’s virtual testbed which continues to evolve. With every round, the organizers work to bring the virtual and physical worlds closer together. During the recent Urban Circuit, they made high resolution scans of both the competition course as well as participating robots.

There’s a lot of other traffic on various SubT code repositories. Motivated by Bitbucket sunsetting their Mercurial support, SubT is moving from Bitbucket to GitHub and picking up some housecleaning along the way. Together with the newly added tutorials, this is a great time to dive in and see if you want to assemble a team (both of human collaborators and virtual robots) to join in the next round of virtual SubT. But if you prefer to stay an observer of the physical world, enjoy this writeup with many fun details on systems track robots.

DARPA Challenge Autonomous Robot Teams To Navigate Unfinished Nuclear Power Plant

Robots might be finding their footing above ground, but today’s autonomous robots have a difficult time operating underground. DARPA wanted to give the state of the art a push forward, so they are running a Subterranean (SubT) Challenge which just wrapped up its latest round. A great review of this Urban Circuit competition (and some of the teams participating in it) has been published by IEEE Spectrum. This is the second of three underground problem subdomains presented to the participants, six months apart, preparing them for the final event which will combine all three types.

If you missed the livestream or prefer edited highlight videos, they’re all part of DARPAtv’s Subterranean Challenge playlist. Today it starts with a compilation of Urban Circuit highlights and continues to other videos. Including team profiles, video walkthrough of competition courses, actual competition footage, edited recap videos, and the awards ceremony. Half of the playlist are video from the Tunnels Circuit six months ago, so we can compare to see how teams performed and what they’ve learned along the way. Many more lessons were learned in the just-completed Urban Circuit and teams will spend the next six months improving their robots. By then we’ll have the Caves Circuit competition with teams ready to learn new lessons about operating robots underground.

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DARPA Subterranean Challenge Urban Circuit Now Livestreaming

Currently underway is the DARPA Subterranean Challenge (SubT) systems competition for urban circuits streamed live on YouTube now through Wednesday, February 26th.

The DARPA Grand Challenge of 2004 kicked research and development of autonomous vehicles into high gear. Many components on today’s self-driving vehicles can be traced back to systems developed for that competition. Hoping to spur further development, DARPA has since held several more challenges focused moving the state of the art in autonomous robotics ahead.

To succeed in this challenge, robots must handle terrain that would confuse today’s self-driving cars. Cluttered environments, uneven surfaces of different materials, even the occasional flooded section are fair game. These robots also lose access to some of the tools previously available, such as GPS. The “systems track” denotes teams building physical robot systems versus a separate “virtual track” for simulation robots. “Urban circuit” is the second of four phases in this competition, environments of this phase are focused on man-made underground structures. (Think subway station.) For more details on this competition as well as description of various phases, see our introductory post or the competition site.

Those who rather not watch robots tentatively exploring unknown territory (and occasionally failing) may choose to wait for summaries published after competition rounds are complete. The first phase (tunnel circuit) from August-October 2019 was summarized by IEEE Spectrum here. Or you can go straight to DARPA for details on the systems track and virtual track with overall results posted on the competition site.

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Designing An Advanced Autonomous Robot: Goose

Robotics is hard, maybe not quite as difficult as astrophysics or understanding human relationships, but designing a competition winning bot from scratch was never going to be easy. Ok, so [Paul Bupe, Jr’s] robot, named ‘Goose’, did not quite win the competition, but we’re very interested to learn what golden eggs it might lay in the aftermath.

The mechanics of the bot is based on a fairly standard dual tracked drive system that makes controlling a turn much easier than if it used wheels. Why make life more difficult than it is already? But what we’re really interested in is the design of the control system and the rationale behind those design choices.

The diagram on the left might look complicated, but essentially the system is based on two ‘brains’, the Teensy microcontroller (MCU) and a Raspberry Pi, though most of the grind is performed by the MCU. Running at 96 MHz, the MCU is fast enough to process data from the encoders and IMU in real time, thus enabling the bot to respond quickly and smoothly to sensors. More complicated and ‘heavier’ tasks such as LIDAR and computer vision (CV) are performed on the Pi, which runs ‘Robot operating system’ (ROS), communicating with the MCU by means of a couple of ‘nodes’.

The competition itself dictated that the bot should travel in large circles within the walls of a large box, whilst avoiding particular objects. Obviously, GPS or any other form of dead reckoning was not going to keep the machine on track so it relied heavily on ‘LiDAR point cloud data’ to effectively pinpoint the location of the robot at all times. Now we really get to the crux of the design, where all the available sensors are combined and fed into a ‘particle filter algorithm’:

What we particularly love about this project is how clearly everything is explained, without too many fancy terms or acronyms. [Paul Bupe, Jr] has obviously taken the time to reduce the overall complexity to more manageable concepts that encourage us to explore further. Maybe [Paul] himself might have the time to produce individual tutorials for each system of the robot?

We could well be reading far too much into the name of the robot, ‘Goose’ being Captain Marvel’s bazaar ‘trans-species’ cat that ends up laying a whole load of eggs. But could this robot help reach a de-facto standard for small robots?

We’ve seen other competition robots on Hackaday, and hope to see a whole lot more!

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Dashing Diademata Delivers Second Generation ROS

A simple robot that performs line-following or obstacle avoidance can fit all of its logic inside a single Arduino sketch. But as a robot’s autonomy increases, its corresponding software gets complicated very quickly. It won’t be long before diagnostic monitoring and logging comes in handy, or the desire to encapsulate feature areas and orchestrate how they work together. This is where tools like the Robot Operating System (ROS) come in, so we don’t have to keep reinventing these same wheels. And Open Robotics just released ROS 2 Dashing Diademata for all of us to use.

ROS is an open source project that’s been underway since 2007 and updated regularly, each named after a turtle species. What makes this one worthy of extra attention? Dashing marks the first longer term support (LTS) release of ROS 2, a refreshed second generation of ROS. All high level concepts stayed the same, meaning almost everything in our ROS orientation guide is still applicable in ROS 2. But there were big changes under the hood reflecting technical advances over the past decade.

ROS was built in an age where a Unix workstation cost thousands of dollars, XML was going to be how we communicate all data online, and an autonomous robot cost more than a high-end luxury car. Now we have $35 Raspberry Pi running Linux, XML has fallen out of favor due to processing overhead, and some autonomous robots are high-end luxury cars. For these and many other reasons, the people of Open Robotics decided it was time to make a clean break from legacy code.

The break has its detractors, as it meant leaving behind the vast library of freely available robot intelligence modules released by researchers over the years. Popular ones were (or will be) ported to ROS 2, and there is a translation bridge sufficient to work with some, but the rest will be left behind. However, this update also resolved many of the deal-breakers preventing adoption outside of research, making ROS more attractive for commercial investment which should bring more robots mainstream.

Judging by responses to the release announcement, there are plenty of people eager to put ROS 2 to work, but it is not the only freshly baked robotics framework around. We just saw Nvidia release their Isaac Robot Engine tailored to make the most of their Jetson hardware.

DARPA Goes Underground For Next Challenge

We all love reading about creative problem-solving work done by competitors in past DARPA robotic challenges. Some of us even have ambition to join the fray and compete first-hand instead of just reading about them after the fact. If this describes you, step on up to the DARPA Subterranean Challenge.

Following up on past challenges to build autonomous vehicles and humanoid robots, DARPA now wants to focus collective brainpower solving problems encountered by robots working underground. There will be two competition tracks: the Systems Track is what we’ve come to expect, where teams build both the hardware and software of robots tackling the competition course. But there will also be a Virtual Track, opening up the challenge to those without resources to build big expensive physical robots. Competitors on the virtual track will run their competition course in the Gazebo robot simulation environment. This is similar to the NASA Space Robotics Challenge, where algorithms competed to run a virtual robot through tasks in a simulated Mars base. The virtual environment makes the competition accessible for people without machine shops or big budgets. The winner of NASA SRC was, in fact, a one-person team.

Back on the topic of the upcoming DARPA challenge: each track will involve three sub-domains. Each of these have civilian applications in exploration, infrastructure maintenance, and disaster relief as well as the obvious military applications.

  • Man-made tunnel systems
  • Urban underground
  • Natural cave networks

There will be a preliminary circuit competition for each, spaced roughly six months apart, to help teams get warmed up one environment at a time. But for the final event in Fall of 2021, the challenge course will integrate all three types.

More details will be released on Competitor’s Day, taking place September 27th 2018. Registration for the event just opened on August 15th. Best of luck to all the teams! And just like we did for past challenges, we will excitedly follow progress. (And have a good-natured laugh at fails.)

Taking First Place At IMAV 2016 Drone Competition

The IMAV (International Micro Air Vehicle) conference and competition is a yearly flying robotics competition hosted by a different University every year. AKAMAV – a university student group at TU Braunschweig in Germany – have written up a fascinating and detailed account of what it was like to compete (and take first place) in 2016’s eleven-mission event hosted by the Beijing Institute of Technology.

AKAMAV’s debrief of IMAV 2016 is well-written and insightful. It covers not only the five outdoor and six indoor missions, but also details what it was like to prepare for and compete in such an intensive event. In their words, “If you share even a remote interest in flying robots and don’t mind the occasional spectacular crash, this place was Disney Land on steroids.”

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