Darpa Robotics Challenge: Pitting the world’s most advanced robots against each other
The Darpa Robotics Challenge (DRC) is competition showcasing the world’s most advanced robots.
Will the unblinking machines tear each other’s heads off? Or join forces and at last begin their campaign for world domination?
Not exactly. In fact, most of the 24 contestants at last weekend’s DRC finals in California had difficulty opening a door without falling over.
The three-year contest was organised by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) – and set up in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster – to encourage the development of robots capable of working in disaster zones too dangerous for humans. By this week, two dozen teams from around the world were in the running for a combined $3.5m (£2.3m) in prize money, including a $2m first prize.
To win, the robots were given an hour to complete eight tasks that would take a competent adult human no more than 10 minutes: drive a car a few yards; get out of the car; open a door; twist a valve; drill a hole; pull a lever; walk across some rubble; climb a small flight of stairs. On 5 June, many of the contestants struggled to complete more than two of the tasks.
Their human operators had to control the machines with the patchy wireless communications that would be present during a real disaster, and were given two chances to complete the course: once on 5 June and again. If a robot fell and was unable to get up of its own accord, its team incurred a 10-minute penalty for helping it to its “feet”.
Some of the teams are sponsored by governments including the Japanese. Many came from universities and research labs. One was from the aerospace and arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin, though it’s safe to say they’re a way off from creating Iron Man: on the morning of 5 June, the firm’s “Trooper” robot failed even to climb out of the car.
By lunchtime, the “Running Man” robot, operated by a team from the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC), topped the leader board after completing seven of the eight tasks and falling over only twice. “What these robots are doing is all stuff we take for granted as humans,” said IHMC research associate Doug Stephen.
“We’re trying to understand how those mechanisms work and turn them into software, which is a lot harder than people assume. These robots may look human-like, but they’re not really like humans.”
Darpa is the innovations branch of the US Department of Defence, and helped to originate modern technologies including drones and the internet. In 2005, it held its first prize-based challenge: to design an unmanned land vehicle that could transport supplies to bases in regions such as Afghanistan without putting human personnel at risk from IEDs and ambushes. Many of the top-scoring participants were later hired by Google for its project to create a driverless car.
The search giant swept in after the first DRC trials in 2013 and purchased Boston Dynamics, the firm that built the 6ft 2in Atlas robot being used by several of the teams in the tournament (each of which designed its own software and operating system). Google also bought Schaft, a Japanese company that scored highest in the trials, and then promptly withdrew the Schaft robot from the competition, reportedly uncomfortable about Darpa’s links to the military.
The contest is about “fact versus fiction”, said Brad Tousley, the director of Darpa’s Tactical Technology Office. “There’s a lot of fiction out there in the movies. A lot of people at the first DRC trials said, ‘Watching these robots is like watching paint dry.’ That’s fact.
"At Darpa we invest in things early on, that may take many years to come to fruition. Maybe 15 years from now we’ll see the first robot that we can actually send into a collapsed building to do a rescue.”
Team Kaist's DRC-Hubo humanoid robot, from South Korea, defeated the 22 others to win the $2m prize.
Independent News Service