THE BLOG
08/30/2013 11:37 am ET Updated Oct 30, 2013

DARPA Challenge to Give Robot Brains: IBM, SoftLayer, and Open Source Robotics Foundation

Through the Department of Defense (DoD) Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF) ran the DARPA Robotics Challenge in an "attempt to address the capability gap by promoting innovation in robotic technology for disaster-response operations." - DARPA.

Born out of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, which spawned the Fukushima Nuclear Power Station radiation disaster, the DoD realized societies around the world are vulnerable to such epic events and the collateral damage they engender. The U.S. Navy found that out first hand when the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier sailed within 100 miles downwind from the crippled plant that had released radiation into the air and leaked it into the sea. The latter continues to this day.

What they learned in trying to contain the melting down plant was that human will, skill, and endurance aren't enough -- even those who sacrificed their lives for the betterment of Japan -- to combat such disasters in the trenches. We learned that from the Ground Zero cleanup after the World Trade Center collapse in 2001 and the toxic, carcinogenic health issues that became a debris field with dying and affected first responders and the cleanup crews. We are reminded of those limits this summer when nineteen elite Arizona firefighters were trapped and perished in the inferno; and again now with the Yosemite forest fires that are threatening San Francisco's water and power supply, which come from those mountains.

What could be done about entering such deadly zones, some being sure death sentences?

One word: Robotics.

The U.S. has the hardware. But what about the software? Legacy? Developed before the mobile app era? And what about the brains to make robots do the things that would be required of first responders, do the dirty work of containment and cleanup, while not tire or sacrifice human lives in the process?

Out of that scenario, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) reached out to OSRF. After DARPA Robotics Challenge setup the Virtual Robotics Challenge, the two launched a robotic competition with a simulation stage. Some of the 26 teams that qualified for the competition provided their own robot hardware.

The Open Source Robotics Foundation and DARPA

"The contest began with Amazon as the cloud service provider for the contest," Brian Gerkey began to explain. As CEO of OSRF, he and DARPA realized there were issues for the challenge teams to use Amazon Web Services. "For one, Amazon rented the GPU-as-a-service by the hour. But the virtualization became a major roadblock for the competitors.

Virtualization has a loop closed, only a thousand times a second computations."

That might sound like a lot, but to get robots to mimic the many things we can do, but might not be conscious of, would require faster, unbroken computing power.

"We needed something more powerful and reliable. We chose IBM's SoftLayer, which is known for 'bare metal' cloud servers to come up with a bare metal configuration. The transition to that framework was a very successful effort," Gerkey said.

"How did the robotics competition begin?" I asked.

"We started one year ago with robotics simulations of humanoid robots. They were disaster response simulations. We were the selected organization to host the simulation competition in the cloud. Meaning, all computer requirements would be done in the cloud, from data center storage and data analytics, to access to simulations," Mr. Gerkey said.

"We felt the technology developed from the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) could be useful simulations for students, who could access the data and software on powerful Linux servers one day, and leverage the resources in a cloud setting," he said. "The first phase of the competition ended after nine months this past June."

Gerkey went on to explain that the DRC needed cloud-based services, with lots of GPUs compute power for sensors generation, what cameras and lasers could be used, and so on. "We had 26 teams around world qualify for the competition. The top seven teams would be given access to hardware, such as humanoid robots plus cash awards in Miami this December," he said.

"Gill Pratt (from DARPA) looked at what happened in the Japan tsunami disaster and knew we needed a robotic solution, robust, better equipped with a quicker response to such events," Brian Gerkey explained.

Dr. Gill Pratt joined DARPA in January 2010 as the Program Manager in the Defense Science Office.

"What is so interesting about this story, this competition is that one of the teams that entered the DRC came from Japan. DARPA funded a dozen teams out of the twenty-six. But two of the seven finalists were unfunded teams, and one of those was the Japanese team," he said.

In terms of good karma, that's a great story. In terms of the global, open source movement that fosters collaboration and innovation through a shared developers' environment, it's even a better story.

"This summer, the seven selected teams are developing physical robots and import the physical components. Those teams who do well on the next phase of the challenge will receive $2 million in prizes that await them this December in Miami," Gerkey said with a sense of pride and accomplishment.

IBM and SoftLayer Pitch Into the Future

The phone interview with Mr. Gerkey was setup by IBM's Cloud Analytics Division, which added SoftLayer's Chief Scientist Nathan Day to the conversation.

"When SoftLayer was brought into the challenge midstream, we realized the teams needed a simplified cloud system on bare metal. An open compute, on demand model with an API, human portal, so that if I the user wanted to access and use system A, I hit the 'go' button and use (lease) it for a couple of hours on an as needed basis for the customer," Nathan Day said.

"We looked at the existing system that was in place and realized SoftLayer could provide a better performance network in a bare metal product. The competition definitely needed that, to close the loop. We began with two servers that helped transition the 26 teams," he said.

Don't feel sorry for Amazon, they just closed a $600 million contract with the CIA to build an on-premise cloud for the intel agency that was announced at the end of June.

SoftLayer also provided simulation for the competition duration. DARPA paid for that set for one and a half months for the competitors. We then released the hardware infrastructure back to out inventory , but now the teams can rent the compute power in a subscription model," Mr. Day said.

When asked about the development of Open Source Robotics Foundation, Mr. Gerkey replied, "OSRR is a new organization, one year old spinoff from Willow Garage in Menlo Park, Silicon Valley. Our aim is open source software for robotics, an independent, non-profit group to act as a hub for robotics."

But their aim, along with DARPA's in the robotics competition is to develop software that will be used not only for first responder robots of the future in the next disaster, but will be tested by "NASA called Robot Map 2 that will use the winning software in its development process, and then send the software upgrade to the robot in the space station in 2014," Gerkey said with tempered excitement.

Overall, the DRC's main objective was to have a sim competition to build a simulator over the next year and a half. "The mandate is to make a robotic simulator with the contest's open source software and make that the legacy of the program," Brian Gerkey said. "The teams in the DRC are involved in robotics design, then build and test it, where they get to work on dexterous hands and develop infrastructure apps on mobile devices."

They are finding innovative ways to developing solutions to the next event.

"IBM and SoftLayer are thrilled to be part of this challenge, to be involved in the cutting edge of new and great innovation," Nathan Day added.

To host DARPA's challenge all in the cloud is even better for science, technology, and progress.