Inspiration sometimes comes from the strangest places, a concept that’s not lost on Qualcomm. This is, after all, the kind of company where finance folks launch augmented reality initiatives, where marketing people author patents with new ideas for improving electric vehicles. And where Donald Hutson, an engineer in the Qualcomm Technologies’ research group, can pursue the passion of his life: robots. Nothing particularly strange about that. But consider Hutson’s latest creative venture. Hutson and his team of talented engineers are one of the 24 contenders in the reboot of the “BattleBots” TV show that originally aired back in 2002.
The all-new TV series will premier this Sunday, June 21st, on ABC. In this futuristic tournament of mechanized mayhem, competitors design armored machines and take them into a bulletproof arena called the “Battlebox,” where the robot-versus-robot action begins. Months of hard work go into getting each machine ready for the big “show,” and capable of surviving any unknown circumstance—even the most skillful operator knows that his robot will either emerge a victor in the single elimination contest, or end up in the recycle bin.
No stranger to the world of robot combat, Hutson has participated in numerous competitions over the years, including several seasons of the original Robotwars, Combots, and BattleBots. In a previous iteration of “BattleBots,” he took home the title of “super heavyweight champion” twice.
His winning robot, “Diesector,” inspired an R/C controlled toy replica, was featured in a video game, and ultimately achieved one of the highest distinctions available to celebrities (human or machine) anywhere—being featured as a children’s meal toy for a well-known purveyor of hamburgers (hint: this fast food chain boasts, “billions sold”). Hutson subsequently was called on to participate in various hit TV shows, including “CSI Miami,” “Shameless,” and “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
Today, Hutson is a nine-year mentor for the FIRST Robotics Competition, where students (grades 7-12) and mentors work during a six-week period to build game-playing robots in a more collaborative competition: It celebrates teamwork and the pro-social benefits that robot designing, building, and competing can bring to young people contemplating careers involving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The group he coaches, Team 1572 “Hammer Heads,” won the Inland Empire (in Southern California) regional tournament this year, and went on to compete in the annual FIRST Championship (the “nationals”) in St. Louis last month. (Qualcomm is a Presenting Sponsor of the FIRST Robotics Championship.)
In his day job at Qualcomm Research, Hutson leverages the power of mobile technology to push the boundaries of what’s possible in robotics. You may ask, what do smartphones and robots have in common? They actually share a lot of similarities. If you look at the technology that powers a modern robot or commercial drone, you will find enabling technologies such as wireless communications, camera processing for pictures and video, energy-efficient computing, geolocation capabilities, and real-time sensor processing. These are all the same kinds of technologies that live in the smartphone you are probably holding in your hand right now.
Hutson and his colleagues at Qualcomm Research are now working to make robots even smarter, by incorporating smartphone-based cognitive technologies into the mix, such as computer vision and machine learning, to help robots to better see, understand, and navigate their environment.
The global scale, the strength of the mature developer ecosystem, and the rapid development cycles associated with mobile technologies are now being leveraged to help deliver ever more advanced and cost-effective robots (and drones). Chris Anderson, CEO of 3D Robotics, once said “the personal drone is basically the peace dividend of the smartphone wars…I’ve never seen technology move faster than it’s moving right now, and that’s because of the supercomputer in your pocket.”
Over the last few years, Hutson and his colleagues have developed a succession of advanced reference robotics designs using Qualcomm Snapdragon processors—the same chip found at the heart of over 1 billion smartphones. Snapdragon Rover is a great example: It’s a unique rolling robot with a custom manipulator (in the shape of a dragon’s head) that uses computer vision and machine learning techniques to learn to classify and sort different objects. Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf showcased this robot in a keynote last year, showing how “the Rover” could be trained to identify and organize different kinds of toys into their corresponding bins.
Snapdragon Cargo is another of Hutson’s creative robot designs. This is a hybrid of a tank robot and a drone that’s able to grab and transport small packages, assisted by computer vision techniques that help “the Cargo” to map its environment. If you share Hutson’s passion for robots, you can tap into his work as well. Just look for Snapdragon Micro Rover, a reference design for a small forklift robot that uses an off-the-shelf smartphone as its brain. You can download 3D-printable designs, software, and instructions to build your own micro rover.
Snapdragon Rover, Snapdragon Cargo, and the Snapdragon Micro Rover have wowed demo audiences around the world, showing the power of mobile technology in advancing robotics. But these robots are the friendly kind, not made for battle. So Hutson has been spending a great part of his spare time working on something different for the “BattleBots” show, called “Lock Jaw.” We won’t reveal the surprise here—you will have to wait to watch Hutson and his robot when the show airs over the next six Sundays starting June 21st.
In the meantime, we celebrate Hutson’s passion for robots (and technology), and can’t wait to see what other robotics advancements are cooking, both inside Qualcomm’s walls and beyond.