Aussie engineers compete in world's richest robotics challenge

UNSW and UTS battle bots for slice of US$5 million prize pool in UAE

Engineers from UNSW and University of Technology Sydney are in Abu Dhabi, preparing to compete for the US$5 million prize pool of the inaugural Mohamed Bin Zayed International Robotics Competition.

Later today, their teams will go up against 23 others in three separate challenges and a triathlon-style finale at Yas Marina, home of the Abu Dhabi F1 circuit.

For each challenge, robots must function autonomously to complete a series of tasks. The first involves using an
unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to locate, track and land on a moving vehicle. The second requires an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) to locate and reach a panel, then select the right sized spanner from a set on the panel, and use it to turn a valve. Challenge three requires a team of UAVs to work together in order to search, locate, track, pick up and place a set of still and moving objects.

“All of this without human intervention, to demonstrate dexterity and mobility of an autonomous mobile platform,” said project leader Stanley Lam, a UNSW research associate.

The UNSW mechatronics team. Left to right: Dominik Daners, Chris Lu, Harry Dudley-Bestow, Stanley Lam, Mark Whitty (centre), William Andrew, Daniel Castillo, Chung Lam. Photo: Grant Turner/Mediakoo
The UNSW mechatronics team. Left to right: Dominik Daners, Chris Lu, Harry Dudley-Bestow, Stanley Lam, Mark Whitty (centre), William Andrew, Daniel Castillo, Chung Lam. Photo: Grant Turner/Mediakoo

“The focus of the competition is disaster response, to push robotics with an ambitious and technologically demanding set of challenges,” said Mark Whitty, a mechatronics engineer and lead researcher of the UNSW team.

“Take the Fukushima disaster, when the Japanese reactor went into meltdown. The robots they tried to place in there were unable to do things like walk up a set of stairs, unscrew nuts and bolts – basically, incapable of doing anything useful,” he added.

The UNSW team is made up of a UGV, four autonomous hexacopter drones – Flippy, Floppy, Flappy and Fally – three university researchers, four current students and three recent graduates who currently work for Uber, Microsoft and Google.

Caffeine and circuitry

While the UNSW team is the only qualifying group from Australia, PhD student Janindu Arukgoda – from University of Technology Sydney’s Centre for Autonomous Systems – is a member of Virginia Tech’s Team Victor.

Writing from UAE, simultaneous localisation and mapping expert Arukgoda described how the team were “running on highly concentrated doses of caffeine” and the robots were feeling the heat.

“Condition changes do affect systems, but we did plan for them so right now we are tuning ours. The temperature difference doesn't itself really make any immediate impact, except for us, but the brightness of the sun has caused some issues with our image processing and computer vision algorithms,” he said.

“This is a competition of full autonomy, and now is the time that the software people demonstrate the efficacy of their system,” he added.

The competition, named after the host city's Crown Prince, runs across three days and is expected to be held every two years.

“This will be a hard challenge,” said one of the event’s organisers Dr Arif Sultan Al Hammadi from Khalifa University. “It will require the teams to not only utilise most known robotics technology, but also invent new ones. Undoubtedly, the resulting technologies from this competition will drive robotics research for some time.”

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