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IHMC Research On Display At "Robotics Week" Open House

In celebration of the 8th Annual National Robotics Week, the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition is hosting two local events.

A Robotics Open House will be held at IHMC on Friday. Then, researchers will ‘take their show on the road’ for an event Saturday at the National Museum of Naval Aviation.

“It’s really to get kids excited about robots for the purpose of encouraging them to go into the STEM fields, and we want to support that,” said Dr. Matt Johnson, a robotics researcher with IHMC since 2002.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

“Obviously, we do a lot of robotics research here and we want to encourage the next generation because they’re (going to) be our employees someday. So, we want to get new and upcoming great minds to come work on robots with us and the best way to do it is to find them when they’re young and get them excited.”

On this day, Johnson is my tour guide, providing a sneak preview of this year’s Robotics Open House, which will be held from 4:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. at IHMC’s new Robotics Lab. The lab is located in the new “Levin Center for IHMC Research,” which is adjacent to IHMC headquarters at 40 S. Alcaniz Street, Pensacola. The recently constructed 30,000-square-foot, $8 million dollar facility was dedicated in September 2016.

At the event, tours of the Robotics Lab will be available, along with hands-on activities and demonstrations, including the Boston Dynamics Atlas robot.

“Most of what we wanted to demonstrate with Atlas for the Open House is walking stuff,” Johnson said. “So, we’ve got a bunch of different terrains that we’re (going to) mock up and having him walk over a bunch of new things that he hasn’t walked over before.”

As a bipedal humanoid robot, Atlas is 6-feet tall. On the other end of the spectrum is the much smaller FastRunner. It's a new bipedal platform inspired by some of the world's fastest bipedal or two-legged animals. Johnson says Dr. Jerry Pratt has been leading the FastRunner project, with their robot modeled after an ostrich, which has a top speed of about 43 miles per hour.

“One of the things we learned from the DARPA Robotics Challenge was you know the state of the art in robotics is that they’re still fairly slow” said Johnson, whose IHMC bio says that he has an interest in making robotics systems, like Atlas, more flexible, resilient, and effective through human-machine teamwork.

“And, so if you want them to get places and there’s a sense of urgency, which there usually is in an emergency situation, you’re (going to) need them to move faster. So, this is sort of focused on that.”

So, in contrast to Atlas, FastRunner has been designed with speed and efficiency in mind, requiring much less power to operate then robots like Atlas, which is says is much like “an oven connected to a refrigerator.”

About a week out from the Open House, Atlas needs a little work on one of his arms and is not ready for a demonstration. But, there is an opportunity to see what FastRunner can do.

Members of the robotics team fire up a fiber-glass enclosed, elevated treadmill.  Then FastRunner is dropped in for a test run at about nine miles an hour.

In addition to Atlas and FastRunner, kids who attend the Open House will also get a chance to check out the capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones.

Today, Research Associate John Carff is at the control. “I have a small little quadcopter that will be flying around during Open House and we have it transmitting video back,” said Carff. “We’ll have some screens up and goggles for people to wear and look and see what the drones use.”

So, he takes it for spin through the Robotics Lab. Later, with the goggles on I’m able to tap into the quadcopter’s video feed, thus seeing what it sees.  

The high tech capabilities at the Lab will further be on display with the simulation of a fighting robot called a “MegaBot.” Johnson says IHMC has worked on some of the control software and the user interface.

“This robot (MegaBot) is out in California,” said Johnson, describing it as 14-feet tall and weighing about six tons. “It’s huge, like a truck. So, we will not have that robot here because it’s enormous. But, we’ll have the interface for it here, driving the simulation and we’ll also have a virtual view of it.” Attendees will actually see a full-sized MegaBot in the lab via virtual reality goggles.

Additionally, a flight simulator and spatial disorientation device will be demonstrated, as will IHMC’s X1 Mina Exoskeleton. This is a wearable robotic device that disabled pilot athlete Mark Daniel, a paraplegic since a 2007 car accident, wore in a Cybathlon competition last year in Switzerland. Daniel and the team from IHMC finished in second place.

Johnson says he’s excited about the future of the exoskeleton and robotics in general, adding that it’s great to be able to share his passion for science and technology with interested youth.

“That’s a very rewarding part of this event, just seeing the kids’ faces,” Johnson exclaimed. “It doesn’t even matter whether it (robot) works. Sometimes, it’s even more exciting, when the robot falls.”

The Robotics Open House at IHMC will be held from 4-7 Friday afternoon. On Saturday, the robotics team will pack up their robots for Robotics Day at the National Museum of Naval Aviation, 1750 Radford Blvd, Pensacola. That event, to be held from noon – 5 p.m., will include hands-on science kit activities from the Pensacola MESS Hall and screenings of the film “ROBOT.”

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.