We asked the captain of the Machine Corps robotics team Zoe Stephenson a few questions about Chomp, one of 32 nifty combat robots featured on the second season of the popular TV show BattleBots. Chomp’s nasty tricks are enabled by the Leddar technology, after it was selected by the LA-based team to build the first robot with autonomy in the history of the show.
Read on to learn how Leddar ended up crushing some metal on american TV.
Can you give us an overview of Chomp? What are her (note: yes, Chomp is a she) main weapons and components, how is she different from her competitors?
Zoe Stephenson – Chomp is a 250-pound (113 kg) BattleBot – a robot that fights other robots, as televised on ABC. Our weapon is a gigantic, scarily-fast pneumatic hammer, which swings from all the way behind Chomp to come down on top of an opponent in front of her in a fraction of a second. As a secondary weapon, she also has a propane flamethrower.
We are mechanical and software engineering nerds, and that’s part of what sets Chomp apart from other competitors. We have made a large fraction of the mechanism inside Chomp ourselves, including the pneumatics components. Uniquely among BattleBots teams, we’ve also made Chomp semi-autonomous using a Leddar M16 sensor as our robotic eyes: Chomp is the first BattleBot with any autonomy.
What are the capabilities enabled by the Leddar module that serves Chomp in the arena?
ZS – Our Leddar module allows us to automate two of the most difficult parts of piloting a fighting robot in real time: it helps our driver point Chomp at the other bot, and it helps our weapons operator fire the hammer at the right time. One tough thing about aimed robotic weapons is that human weapons operators react too slowly: there’s a golden opportunity to score a hit, and the human just doesn’t get there fast enough. Humans are also pretty bad at depth perception, especially when the weapon has a lot of reach, like a hammer: it’s easy to think you’re lined up and actually be two feet forward or back of where the opponent actually is. We have our Leddar positioned at the front center of Chomp, centered on where the hammer will hit, and it is so much more reliable in firing the hammer fast enough and at the right time than a human is! Stay tuned to the ABC BattleBots show: you’ll really see it come through for us in some fights.
We also analyze the distance returns to determine what is most likely to be the opposing robot, and autonomously steer towards that. This keeps our weapon and heavy armor pointed in the most threatening position: it helps on both offense and defense. All the driver does is decide when to close the distance and when to back off. We had only a couple of months to implement this behavior, and we are all bowled over by how robust and easy our Leddar module’s output is, and how well it just works! Since we only put one Leddar on Chomp, in edge cases, an opponent can drive out of our field of view, so sometimes the human driver needs to take over and reset Chomp in a spot where our auto-targeting can take charge again.
Can you tell us how you discovered LeddarTech and how/why the Leddar technology was selected by your team to be part of Chomp?
ZS – We knew we wanted to make Chomp autonomous, because the human control failings are so clear and the case was just begging for a sensor assist. We were scouring the internet for lidars, and LeddarTech was the only company offering a solid-state solution with multiple beams, which we felt we needed for robustness (BattleBots take quite a beating in their 3-minute matches!). LeddarTech is also within our price range – we were surprised and excited with how perfect it was.
Closeup of the Leddar module in Chomp
Did you try or evaluate other similar sensing technologies before selecting Leddar?
ZS – We did. We’ve actually been working on autonomy in BattleBots for two years, since it came back to TV. Last year’s Chomp had a single point lidar we were hoping to use to automate weapons use. The unreliability of sensor data in combination with the lack of time to develop software meant that that system never saw the light of day.
In your opinion, which are the biggest benefits, added value or advantages of Leddar for your project, or in general?
ZS – Chomp’s Leddar-guided auto-targeting and Auto-Chomp weapons firing are so much better than a human’s efforts that it actually makes us laugh when we compare them. Before we got everything running on Chomp – which is a fast, big, powerful, and new robot – our software team was getting the system figured out on a small, old, slow test platform. Just for kicks, we had a human drive Chomp around and try to shake the little old bot with the Leddar. Even with all the speed and power and quick-reversal advantages of the big bot, we couldn’t shake the Leddar-based system! That was a big eye-opener.
Testing Leddar for auto-targeting
Can you tell us about the integration of the Leddar module in Chomp? Was the autosensing capability planned from the beginning or was it integrated at a later stage of development?
ZS – From the beginning, we’ve wanted to make Chomp autonomous. We actually started on this two years ago, with our first version of Chomp, though we got started late and didn’t have anything like as high quality a sensor. This year, we started small: our hope when we bought our first Leddar was that maybe we’d be able to get automated weapons firing worked out, given that we only had a few months to build Chomp. We had this pie-in-the-sky dream of also doing driving assistance, which we thought would be at least a year down the road. We realized halfway through the build that the processed data we were getting out of our Leddar was good enough to just make the drive assist happen. We added a CAN bus to the wheels under the control of the microcontroller receiving the Leddar returns. Before that, the wheels had all been independent electrical systems, each with their own radio receiver, so that if one wheel drivetrain got damaged, the others would keep running. We still have that independent system included as a backup.
Do you intend to further improve Chomp? Other features or tweaks you maybe didn’t have time to do, but would like to develop someday?
ZS – We definitely want to keep improving Chomp! We would love to see Chomp fully autonomous someday. Next year we’re considering 4+ Leddars looking out of all sides. With more angle covered, we may be able to see the walls well enough to solve where we are in the box – and we certainly won’t lose our fix on opponents.
ZS – You are such an amazing company! We are so glad you exist, and are our sponsor: we feel like we’re cool kids now that we’re officially associated with you. We got all kinds of wonderful help from the LeddarTech engineers, and everyone was so responsive and friendly and willing to discuss technical matters – and you make such a great product at a really affordable price. People out there reading this: go buy some Leddar products! You won’t be disappointed!
BattleBots is televised on ABC on Thursday nights at 8pm/7pm Central