Penn roboticists test their mettle at DARPA challenge

In early June, Penn engineers were among the 23 teams that brought the world’s most advanced humanoid robots to Pasadena, Calif., for the ultimate test: the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Finals. There, robots had to pass a gauntlet of eight tasks that simulate what a rescue robot might be called on to perform in a crisis situation.


DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, created the international competition after the nuclear meltdown at a Japanese power plant following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country. A robot that could open doors, climb ladders, and operate tools designed for humans—while withstanding conditions deadly to humans—would be invaluable in a range of human-made and natural disasters. 

Penn faculty and students played a role on two of the teams that competed in the DRC Finals. Team THOR, a collaboration with the University of California, Los Angeles, is co-led by Daniel Lee, a professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and director of the GRASP Lab. Team TROOPER, which included engineers from Lockheed Martin and Rensselaer, features fellow Penn Engineering professors Kostas Daniilidis and Vijay Kumar.  

THOR is custom-built, while TROOPER is an Atlas robot from Boston Dynamics, which was acquired by Google shortly before the Challenge's preliminary trials in 2013. In both cases, the main contributions of the Penn teams were to the software and sensing that allow the robots to complete these complex tasks with minimal human input.

The tasks in the Finals included: driving a car, exiting it unassisted, opening a door, turning a valve, cutting a hole in a wall, plugging and unplugging a power cable, walking through a rubble pile, and climbing stairs. Teams had two chances to complete all eight tasks in order, scoring a point for each. Team KAIST from South Korea, which had a perfect score in the fastest time, took home the top prize of $2 million.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the DRC Finals was that the robots could not be held upright by a gantry, as they were in the preliminary trials. The preponderance of contestants keeling over mid-task was a testament to how the most basic human element of any movement, like taking a step without losing one’s balance, remains a hard problem for roboticists.  

THOR scored three points, in the driving, door, and valve tasks. TROOPER scored two, for driving the car and exiting it. It was one of six teams that were able to score in the latter category, where the awkward contortions made robots particularly prone to falls.

“Penn was definitely an integral part of this historic event in robotics,” Lee says. “In addition to having key members of Team TROOPER and THOR, we also had a large presence in the Robotics Exhibition, where a number of students demonstrated and exhibited the latest flying, wheeled, and legged research robots from the GRASP Lab.”