This year‘s DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), held in Pomona, California, last weekend brought together 23 teams from the US, South Korea, Italy, Japan, Germany and China who each had to complete an obstacle course simulating conditions similar to those following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan.
The teams had been developing their robots for more than two years and have tried the challenges before. This time, however, they had to complete all eight natural disaster-related tasks – such as driving a car, walking through rubble, tripping circuit breakers, climbing stairs and turning valves – in just under an hour, whereas before they were given 30 minutes for each.
Furthermore, the contenders had to operate under degraded communications between themselves and their operators.
In the end, only three robots successfully tackled all of the assignments without an excessive number of falls. The first prize of $2 million went to the DRC-Hubo from South Korea’s Team KAIST, who navigated the course in 44.5 minutes. The second prize of $1 million was awarded to the Running Man from the Florida-based Team IHMC Robotics (50.5 minutes), and CHIMP from Carnegie-Mellon University’s Tartan Rescue Team (55 minutes) came in third and took home $500.000 in winnings.
“These robots are big and made of lots of metal, and you might assume people seeing them would be filled with fear and anxiety,” said the event’s organizer Gill Pratt. “But we heard groans of sympathy when those robots fell. And what did people do every time a robot scored a point? They cheered! It’s an extraordinary thing, and I think this is one of the biggest lessons from DRC — the potential for robots not only to perform technical tasks for us, but to help connect people to one another.”
According to Dan Kara, the Practice Director for Robotics at ABI Research, falling down is not necessarily a bad thing as it allows developers to improve on their designs by making them more stable, lighter and more robust, and work on different types of fail-over systems to increase the robots’ versatility.
The goal of the DRC is to advance robotics and bring it closer to a level where robots could be used in disaster rescue operations, which could prove highly beneficial due to the fact that robots can navigate hard-to-reach areas, be equipped to sense things not perceptible to humans, and, with their greater strength, do things we simply never could.
Reaching that level, however, is still ways ahead, as currently it’s still a tall order to make a robot walk at all, much less have it navigate an unknown environment with precision.
The consensus among engineers working in the field today seems to be that the best potential for robotics may be to combine it with drone or aerial vehicle technology, as well as machine-learning algorithms.
“We are still evolving robotics around materials, design, programming, machine learning” and other areas, said Jim McGregor, Principal at Tirias Research. “We will improve the technology over time.”
As for the future of our fellow Transformers, the challenge organisers remain hopeful:
“This is the end of the DARPA Robotics Challenge but only the beginning of a future in which robots can work alongside people to reduce the toll of disasters,” said DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar in a press statement. “I am so proud of all the teams that participated and know that the community that the DRC has helped to catalyse will do great things in the years ahead.”