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Summary:

How do you build a virtual robot? In the cloud naturally. And this year IBM/SoftLayer displaced AWS as the cloud of choice for the DARPA competition.

Darpa robot 2

As proof that IBM, SoftLayer’s new corporate overlord, is all over this cloud situation, check out Thursday’s news that the DARPA Virtual Robotics Grand Challenge has switched clouds —  moving from Amazon Web Services to SoftLayer for this year’s competition. The goal of the contest, which drew 100 competitors, is to promote the development of advanced robots that can assist people in mitigating and recovering from disasters, according to the Open Source Robotics Foundation, which  builds and manages the simulation environment used in the DARPA-sponsored contest.

darpa robot challengeThe first phase was to design a “virtual” robot, which is where SoftLayer came in. The OSRF said all those virtual machines need to speak to each other at “hyper-fast speeds.” In a statement, OSRF said:

“SoftLayer offered power and speed, as well as a raw compute offering without any extra virtualization. SoftLayer was the only dedicated platform that could shorten the communication loop between machines to 1k/second, thereby offering the power and speed necessary for complex robotics simulation.”

Each robotics team had access to five connected servers, including two NVIDIA dual Intel Sandy Bridge servers with GPU, isolated from others in the competition, according to SoftLayer’s statement. The teams could reload their own servers as needed, and OSRF could reset constellations to their virgin state once each team finished its simulation.

Nine designs were selected to go on to the next round, which requires the building of actual, physical robots.

This public competition mirrors the not-so-behind-the-scenes battle IBM and Amazon are waging for cloud mind- and market-share.   Late last year, the CIA awarded a $600 million “secret cloud” contract to AWS over IBM, which IBM subsequently contested. And, last week, Amazon contested IBM’s challenge. I have a feeling we haven’t heard the end of this spat. Oh, and the OSRF-SoftLayer robotic challenge deal is good for one year, so who knows what cloud will backstop robot design in 2014?

  1. The robotics work is not “cloud-based”. The “cloud” is just an anti-cheating mechanism for the competition. DARPA controls the simulator, and the entrants control the programs which control the simulated robots. Each is in a separate machine. Those machines are only needed during competitions, so DARPA rents time on “cloud” servers.

    The real robots will not use a “cloud”. Their control computers will be on, or close to, the robot.

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