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Cutting Edge: IHMC's million-dollar ‘bot nabs DARPA prize

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The 350-pound Running Man had to complete eight tasks in a disaster recovery scenario within an hour.

Northwest Florida Roundup

Cutting Edge: IHMC's million-dollar ‘bot nabs DARPA prize

IHMC Robotics Lab's robot nabs a DARPA prize.

Carlton Proctor | 6/26/2015

There's little about the windowless, red-brick building in the heart of downtown Pensacola to hint at the exotic realm inside — the building houses the IHMC Robotics Lab and a 20-person team of some of the nation's best and brightest robotics and software engineers.

Led by 43-year-old senior research scientist Jerry Pratt, IHMC Robotics is just one division of the Florida Institute of Human and Machine Cognition, a free-standing, non-profit research institute of the state university system that focuses generally on how humans and machines interact. IHMC has particular expertise in robotics, enhanced human performance and artificial intelligence.

Pratt, who holds a Ph.D. from MIT, is considered one of the world's leading robotics experts. He holds four U.S. patents on inventions in robotics and in April was named to the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame.

Pratt's current project is programming "Running Man," a 350-pound, humanoid, bipedal robot (it walks on two legs). In June, IHMC's robot finished second worldwide and first among U.S. teams in a robotics contest sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA is a high-tech and often secretive agency that's part of the U.S. Department of Defense.

A total of 21 teams from the U.S. and abroad, including groups from MIT, Korea, Japan and several European countries, took part in the competition, held in Pomona, Calif. The event was meant to simulate how robots might be used in a disaster recovery scenario — such as a nuclear power plant accident — at which human intervention would be too dangerous.

During the competition, each robot had an hour to complete eight tasks. The machines had to get in a car, drive it a short distance, get out of the car and climb over a stack of cinder blocks without falling down. The robots had to use a small saw to cut a hole in a wall, then had to open and close a door and turn off a valve.

IHMC's robot had a perfect score but finished the tasks six minutes slower than a wheeled robot fielded by a Korean team. IHMC took home a $1-million prize.

"I've been working in the field of bipedal robotics for 12 years," says Pratt. "We've made some pretty good advances. But there's still a lot more that can be done in this field. We're just getting started."

In addition to the Running Man project, Pratt's team also has built a six-legged robot called "HexRunner," which set a world speed record last year for legged robots.

Business Briefs

CRESTVIEW — Emerald Coast Aviation has completed a 5,600-sq.-ft. terminal. The $600,000 project has a 30-year land lease with Okaloosa County.

DESTIN — Construction is under way in Destin on the 12-story 1900 Ninety Eight condominium project along U.S.98.

ESCAMBIA/SANTA ROSA — Pensacola Habitat for Humanity sold 56 properties to a Louisiana-based buyer for less than one-third of their appraised value, according to tax records in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. The charity had used a 2010 HUD grant to acquire more houses and land than it ended up needing. When it ran into financial problems during the past year, it bundled 28 houses and 28 vacant parcels that it sold to the Louisiana buyer. The average purchase price of each vacant parcel was $8,160.

NICEVILLE — The Mid-Bay Bridge Authority has approved a plan to refinance its outstanding debt on the Mid- Bay Bridge and Spence Parkway. The move will reduce the authority's 2016 debt service from $30.7 million to an estimated $19.7 million.

PANAMA CITY — Panama City collected $151,000 from a new, 5-cent tourist development tax, or "bed tax," during the first two months of 2015, according to city officials. » Gulf Coast State College is offering students a two-year degree in unmanned vehicle systems. The program is linked to a four-year degree at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona.

PENSACOLA — Silver Airways now offers twice-daily flights between Pensacola International Airport and Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans. » Gulf Power has received approval from the Florida Public Service Commission to partner with the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force to build solar energy farms at three military installations across northwest Florida.

SANTA ROSA COUNTY — Sperry Van Ness-South Land Commercial Real Estate sold a 2,718-acre parcel of land, known as "Jubilee," to an investment group in Atlanta for $3.9 million.

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