IBM's SoftLayer Cloud Hosts DARPA-Funded Robotics Competition

IBM announced that its SoftLayer unit hosted a recent DARPA-funded robotics challenge for the Open Source Robotics Foundation.

IBM announced that the Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF), the group that supports the development, distribution and adoption of open-source software for use in robotics, chose IBM's SoftLayer Technologies to host the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Virtual Robotics Challenge (VRC).

SoftLayer provided the infrastructure of bare metal, cloud and high-performance GPU servers to host the competition that is aimed at pushing the boundaries of robotics technology. OSRF was funded by DARPA to support the simulator-based event, part of the broader DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC). The VRC ran June 17 to June 21.

To conduct the VRC, DARPA looked to the OSRF to develop a cloud-based simulator that calculates and displays the physical and sensory behaviors of robots in a three-dimensional virtual space, in real time. The simulator enabled teams to send commands and receive data over the Internet to and from a simulated Atlas robot. An Atlas robot is hydraulically powered robot in the form of an adult human. It is capable of a variety of natural movements, including dynamic walking, calisthenics and user-programmed behavior.

Gill Pratt, the DRC program manager, said the VRC and the DARPA Simulator allowed the agency to open the field for the challenge beyond hardware experts to include experts in robotic software.

IBM said competitors in the VRC sought to develop software to enable a simulated robot to execute tasks like those that might be required of emergency personnel in a disaster-response situation. The VRC drew more than 100 teams from around the world, and SoftLayer's cloud platform allowed them to compete from remote locations.

The winners of the virtual competition will move on to the next stage of the DRC, in which the software they tested during the VRC will be applied to physical robots during a live event. The top six teams earned funding and an Atlas robot from DARPA to compete in the DRC trials in December 2013. The trials are the second of three DRC events, and the first physical competition.

OSRF selected SoftLayer for the VRC because the level of simulation the competition demanded needed machines to speak to each other at hyper-fast speeds. For instance, to simulate communications limitations in a disaster zone, the VRC imposed a round-trip latency of 500 milliseconds on data transmission, and varied the total number of communications bits available in each run, from a high of 900 megabits down to 60 megabits.

"SoftLayer was a true partner in hosting the VRC Simulator and worked with our team closely to pretest machines for the competition," said Brian Gerkey, CEO of OSRF, in a statement. "The VRC was an unprecedented initiative and required technology partners that were willing to go the extra mile."

IBM said SoftLayer provided power and speed, as well as a raw compute offering without any extra virtualization.

"The first Virtual Robotics Competition is an exclamation point in the evolution of the cloud, testing its performance limits and highlighting the need for bare metal servers and virtual environments to work in tandem," Nathan Day, SoftLayer's chief scientist, said in a statement. "SoftLayer's platform can be tailored to meet requirements across the full spectrum of server needs."

IBM said in preparation for the VRC, OSRF configured SoftLayer's platform into a format so that teams were able to control their own server constellation apart from other teams. Through SoftLayer's API, each team was given five connected servers—including two high-end NVIDIA and dual Intel Sandy Bridge servers with GPU—isolated from any others in the competition.

A key goal of the ongoing competition is to develop an open-source simulation platform that could potentially accelerate the robotics and electro-mechanical systems industries by lowering costs necessary to create low-volume, complex systems, DARPA officials said.