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UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering

Jacobs School alumnus helps engineering team win $1 million in DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals

Team IHMC robotics. Jacobs School alumnus Chris Schmidt-Wetekam is fifth from the right in the back row. 

San Diego, CA, July 8, 2015 -- When the Running Man robot won second place at this year’s DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals, the Jacobs School of Engineering had reason to celebrate. One of the engineers behind the robot’s controls was Chris Schmidt-Wetekam, who earned his Ph.D. in the research group of mechanical engineering professor Thomas Bewley in 2010 here at the University of California, San Diego.

Schmidt-Wetekam never imagined he’d be part of a team that would win $1 million in prize money last month in Pomona, Calif. – especially after Running Man took a catastrophic fall on day one of the competition.

Schmidt-Wetekam is now a researcher scientist at the Florida Institute for Machine and Human Cognition (IHMC), whose Running Man robot beat out 21 others for second place. The robot completed eight tasks in just under an hour—50 minutes and 26 seconds to be precise.

At the end of those 50 minutes, Running Man raised its arms and waved to a crowd of supporters from IHMC, who had cheered the robot—and the engineers—as they accomplished all of the challenge’s tasks, including driving a car, walking over debris, cutting a hole in a wall and turning a valve for a fire hose. IHMC’s robot is one of seven identical robots provided to the teams by Boston Dynamics, Inc. All teams were asked to write software for the specific tasks in the competition.

A unique user interface and vigorous software testing in the months leading up to the challenge were key to the robot’s success, Schmidt-Wetekam said. The team used a videogame-style interface to allow the operator to see first-hand what the robot was seeing – similar to a first-person shooter game such as Halo.

 “Even though our robot’s hardware wasn’t unique, its software was,” said Schmidt-Wetekam. “There are two things that stand out as contributing factors to our success: the user interface and the walking and balance algorithm.”

IHMC's Running Man won second place. 

The other contributing factor to Running Man’s success is something called co-activation. “Our strategy was to allow both the robot and the human to do what they do best – the robot maintains its balance on its own, but the operator determines the robot’s path,” Schmidt-Wetekam explained. For example, sensors aboard the robot measure how hard it is pushing against something and feed that data back to the operator. 

Schmidt-Wetekam recalled some of the lessons he learned as the first student to earn his Ph.D. in Bewley’s research group. “Professor Bewely inspired me to build robots that had both a wheeled and a legged motion,” he said. “That way, the robot could both roll and jump to get where it needed to go. I was lucky to have professor Bewely as my mentor and coach, because he allowed me to explore. The unusual amount of hands-on experience I gained during my Ph.D. turned out to be invaluable.”

He advises other engineers to learn to code cleanly – “in a way that people can understand.” It’s a skill he believes will propel the field of robotics into the future.

“Our goal is to raise awareness about the state of robotics – what they are and aren’t capable of,” said Schmidt-Wetekam. “Ultimately, these kind of robots will be applicable in prosthetics and disaster response situations.”

DARPA video highlighting IHMC Robotics and Running Man. 

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Media Contacts

Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering
Phone: 858-822-0899 Brittanie Collinsworth
UC San Diego Center for Microbiome Innovation
Phone: 858-534-8390