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January 19, 2019

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‘So much riding on this’: UNLV robotics team primed for high-stakes competition

UNLV Robot Lab With Paul Oh

L.E. Baskow

The Metal Rebel robot is put through its paces in the newly built UNLV lab for its drone and robotics programs on Thursday, April 23, 2015.

UNLV Robot Lab with Paul Oh

UNLV professor Paul Oh stands with their Metal Rebel as they are finally opening the doors on a newly built lab for its drone and robotics programs on Thursday, April 23, 2015. Launch slideshow »

After months of preparation, the fate of UNLV’s bid to win a prestigious robotics competition is now in the hands, or should we say metal clampers, of one robot.

On Wednesday, the robotics team headed by professor Paul Oh performed one last trial run of Metal Rebel, as the team has taken to calling it, before they leave for Pomona, Calif., to compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge next week.

DARPA, short for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is the Pentagon's research arm tasked with making emerging technologies like robotics useful to the military.

With a head made of little more than a camera, laser and a mess of wires, the $1 million Metal Rebel will face off against some of the most advanced robots in the world in Pomona.

Each robot must perform a set of tasks, including driving a car as well as opening a door, turning a valve and maneuvering over rocky terrain. The tasks last around an hour, and each team only gets two tries over the course of the competition to get it right.

“We’re 10 days away from two hours,” said Jon Daniels, a UNLV professor of drone technology and president of Praxis Aerospace. “There’s so much riding on this.”

Whichever team and robot does it best in the shortest amount of time will win, and UNLV has some stiff competition. Other entrants include NASA, Lockheed Martin, MIT and UCLA. The winner stands to take home $2 million for further robotics research.

Oh and Daniels oversee a dedicated team of around 10 students who do much of the work, from repairing and calibrating the robot in the field to monitoring its high-tech sensors in a control room.

The team chose to focus its efforts on making Metal Rebel really good at the driving task. Daniels said that’s the hardest part of the competition and believes their work has paid off.

In Wednesday’s field trial, the robot breezed around the road obstacles in around 30 seconds. The hard part will be getting Metal Rebel out of the car itself. If the students have to physically remove the robot, they are automatically docked points.

In the official competition, communication between the humans in the control room and the robots will be limited after the driving portion. That’s because DARPA wants to test each robot’s ability to complete tasks with little human interference.

In one task, the UNLV team can simply tell Metal Rebel to “find and turn the valve” and watch as the robot starts to make a 3D map of the area with a laser device called LIDAR. Once the map is made, it navigates to the valve on its own and turns it.

Daniels said participating in the competition not only helps UNLV on its path to becoming a Tier-1 premier research university, it also contributes to the development of robot technology in general, which is still a far cry from the Transformers and the C3POs we see in movies.

UNLV will participate in its first set of tasks on Friday. The event will be livestreamed on theroboticschallenge.org.

“I can’t wait,” said Daniels. “I’m ridiculously excited about this.”

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