How American engineers are helping drive robotics innovation

Getting out of a car can be tricky if you’re a robot.

Last month, robotics experts from around the world travelled to Pomona, California to compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), a contest where semi-autonomous humanoid robots have to perform various obstacles, such as driving vehicles, cutting holes with power tools, and opening car doors, all without falling down. While these are everyday feats we humans take for granted, programming a robot to accomplish these things is apparently no walk in the park.

The Team IHMC Robotics Atlas "Running Man" robot built by Boston Dynamics raises its arms to celebrate after climbing the stairs during the finals of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotic Challenge in Pomona, California June 6, 2015.

The Team IHMC Robotics Atlas "Running Man" robot built by Boston Dynamics raises its arms to celebrate after climbing the stairs during the finals of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotic Challenge in Pomona, California June 6, 2015. (REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon)

“As far as which task was the most challenging, for us anyway, we were terrified of getting out of the car,” Doug Stephen, one of the core software engineers for Team IHMC Robotics of Florida, recalled. “It was super hard to do.”

While Team Kaist of Korea ultimately won, completing all of the tasks in 44 minutes and 28 seconds, Stephen’s team took second place with a time of 50 minutes and 26 seconds -- no small feat in a tournament where competition is fierce and $2 million is on the line. He chalks up the loss up to a poor initial run.

“You got to do two runs and pick your best time,” Stephen told “On our first run due to a little operator error, basically, the robot fell down and we did a lot of damage to the robot when we fell.  And so on the second day, the operator was more cautious– we completed all the tasks, but we had to go very slowly due to the fact that the robot was a little damaged.”

As a consolation prize, the team received a cool million bucks.

Located in the sunny beachside town of Pensacola (with another branch in Ocala), the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition is a non-profit research institution that specializes in a wide range of robots, not just the humanoid models used in the DRC.

“All of our research focuses around this concept of human and machine teamwork -- the machine doesn’t have to be a robot,” said Stephen. “It could be something like improving the display in a pilot’s cockpit or improving the user interface for social data acquisition software.”

A native of nearby Destin, Florida, Stephen didn’t set out for a career in robotics -- he just sort of fell into it.

“I didn’t really study it in school, per se,” he explained. “I studied computer science and software engineering and related stuff, but I got into it through an internship, actually. IHMC were hiring, and I thought robots were pretty cool, so I stuck with it.”

Over the years, Stephen’s home state has become one of America’s hotbeds for technology and robotics, something he accredits to the strong presence of two government outfits.

“People don’t think of Florida as a technology hub, but there is a lot of technology innovation going on in Florida,” he said. “A lot of that is due to the presence of the military and NASA. So between those two government presences, there is a need for a technology industry in Florida. And I think it’s all grown up around that.”

IHMC has worked closely with NASA on various projects, one of which has been making headlines in recent months -- Valkyrie, the space agency’s first bipedal humanoid robot. The robotics lab designed a lot of the software for the six-foot robot that will hopefully one day walk on Mars.

“NASA Johnson Space Center recently announced that they were going to be beginning the NASA Space Robotics Challenge, which will be related to robotics on Mars,” Stephen explained. “Valkyrie is the robot they want to use for the challenge. It was originally built for the DRC, but they ran into some difficulty in getting it fully up and running so they decided to reallocate their resources and spend more time on making a really solid robot instead of cutting corners to try and make it ready for the DRC on time.”

Cutting corners was one thing Team IHMC Robotics did not do when it came to the DRC, which may ironically be one of the reasons they came in second. Instead of using wheels and tracks like Teams Kaist and Tartan Rescue (which came in first and third, respectively), the Florida team’s robot actually walked. While a walking robot is definitely cooler than one on wheels, it falls over more easily.

“One of the most difficult things in general was developing software that was good enough to do all of those things without falling down, especially as a walking robot,” Stephen said. “Both Kaist and [Tartan Rescue’s] CHIMP relied on wheels and tracks most of the time to move around because it’s safer, and we walked everywhere. In general, the hardest thing is figuring out how to not fall down, especially with no safety lines.”

Another thing separating IHMC’s robot from the competition was the fact that, while the other robots had multiple operators, their robot only had one. Stephen attributes this to focusing less on autonomy and more on what the IHMC specializes in -- human/robot interaction.

Speaking of autonomous robots, the software engineer credits their sinister depiction in films like “The Terminator,” “I, Robot,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” for America historically falling behind countries like Japan in robot innovation -- a perception that he feels is beginning to change. After all, two of the top three finalists in the DRC were American teams.

“When we think of robots, we tend to think of all of the big advancements coming out of Southeast Asia, and I don’t think it’s because they’re better at robots than we are -- I think they like robots more than we do and so they’re not afraid of them,” Stephen said. “I think the one thing that’s held back American robotics research for a long time is that in the West, we have this sci-fi culture of pretty scary robots, and so we have all of these horror stories of robots gone mad, and they don’t have that culture in Southeast Asia.”

However, the engineer believes that attitudes are starting to change. “The results of the DRC show that,” he added.

With the Challenge behind them, Team IHMC Robotics is back in Florida designing software for the robots of tomorrow. One thing they’ll never be short on is fresh talent -- being affiliated with the university system ensures a constant influx of young minds from around the world, creating a melting pot of robo–tech know–how.

“Our team is about 50% full time and 50% temporary,” Stephen explained. “We are one of the few labs in the world that has this expertise in walking robots, so people from all over the world -- from Europe and all sorts of different places -- will actually come do their post-doc or their Masters thesis, or do a visiting stint for a couple of months and internships, things like that.”

When not at the lab, Stephen spends his time enjoying the Florida outdoors. “I love fishing, I love scuba diving … That’s why I live here– I love the beach.”

Sand, surf, and humanoid robots -- only in America.