Cog-Burn shakes hands with CMU alum Chuck Hull, inventor of the 3D printer. Several of Cog-Burn’s parts are 3D printed.


The little robot that could

When Popular Mechanics wrote about Grit Robotics earlier this month, it described the team as “scrappy.” It’s the perfect word for the group, made up of Colorado Mesa University faculty, alumni, current students and members of the Grand Junction community.

In early June, the team will travel to California with the semi-autonomous robot it developed to compete in the final round of a robotics challenge from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Grit’s spindly Cog-Burn, which cost about $20,000 to make, will be up against $7 million robots with names like Atlas, Helios and Thor. These bulky giants were made by giants themselves — industry titans like NASA, MIT and that other CMU, Carnegie Mellon University.

It’s an intimidating prospect for most but not for Grit’s team leader, assistant computer science professor Karl Castleton. “This is a good opportunity for Colorado Mesa to be up there with the big names,” he said. The fact that Colorado Mesa is competing in the final round at all is something of a shock, even to Cog-Burn’s most ardent believers. The team has faced hurdles (sometimes literally) every step of the way.

When the challenge was announced in June 2012, DARPA solicited proposals for funding. Grit, which has competed successfully in past DARPA challenges (notably 2007’s autonomous land vehicle challenge) under the name Team Mojavaton, was denied financial assistance.

“It took us a few months to get over that,” Castleton said. “But in February of 2013 we said, ‘Let’s just build our own. Let’s not build the more expensive robot, let’s just do what we can with the resources we can get.’ That’s where our scrappiness came from.” In eight months, the team designed and built a working robot. They submitted videos of the machine to DARPA, and in November of that year, the agency invited the team to compete in the December 2013 trials in Miami, Fla.

Colorado Mesa University assisted in getting Cog-Burn and the Colorado Mesa-affiliated members of his entourage to Florida. There, the robot was required to complete a series of rescue-related tasks, including turning a valve, stepping over a brick and traveling 10 meters in under five minutes. Due to a known design flaw, Cog-Burn’s legs — $500 each — kept overheating. Unwilling to waste money, the team was forced to pull the robot out of tasks to let its legs cool down.

“We got a score of zero, which meant that we walked into sets and tried things but we couldn’t successfully do it,” said Castleton. “We were considered unqualified to get to the challenge initially but DARPA gave us an opportunity to submit additional videos with a modified robot.”

Grit added wheels to Cog-Burn’s legs, saving the parts from burnout. It made the difference and in early March of this year, the team was invited to the final round. The team members have a little more than two months to make a few more modifications to the robot’s chassis including replacing its legs with a set designed by mechanical engineering students here at Colorado Mesa.

Regardless of whether Cog-Burn takes home the $1 million first prize, the challenge has already paid off for members of Grit. One current student has started his own robot-building business. Another was hired upon graduation because of the skill set she developed over the course of the challenge. It’s also a great networking opportunity for those interested in graduate school. “We just really hope the Carnegie Mellons of the world go, ‘Wow, here’s an undergraduate student at the same competition our PhD candidates are at,’” Castleton said.

This June, Cog-Burn’s high-tech, highly funded opponents may be surprised to see the duct tape wrapped around his arms for added strength. It doesn’t phase Castleton. In fact, he embraces it. “Our team’s style is such that that’s ok with us,” he said. “Be a little bit clever, spend less money.”

Scrappy indeed.

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