DARPA Robotics Challenge 2013: 17 Teams To Compete In 'Robot Olympics' This Week

By Josh Lieberman on December 19, 2013 1:52 PM EST

darpa robotics challenge
Seventeen teams will compete in DARPA Robotics Challenge trials in Homestead, Fla, this week. Above, NASA's Valkyrie robot. (Photo: NASA)

Seventeen robots and their creators/overlords will compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge this week, a grueling "robot olympics" in which competitors will have to walk across uneven terrain, climb ladders and even drive a car. The trials take place on Friday and Saturday at the Homestead Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla. Up to eight teams will advance to the next round, with one winner eventually taking home a grand prize of $2 million. 

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"The purpose of the program is really to develop technology that can help make us much more robust to both natural and man-made disasters," said Gill Pratt, program manager of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, or DRC. "In particular, [we're] looking at robotic tech that can mitigate the extent of a disaster during the first hours and days, or while the disaster is still unfolding."

The 17 competing teams come from five countries. They include NASA, Boston Dynamics, South Korea's Team KAIST and Japan's SCHAFT Inc. Last week, NASA unveiled their challenger, Valkyrie, a 6-foot "superhero robot" that has a glowing center like Iron Man; in addition to its search-and-rescue potential, Valkyrie may one day be sent to Mars in advance of astronauts. Boston Dynamics (which was recently purchased by Google) has an equally fearsome challenger in ATLAS, which is also about 6 feet and can continue walking after being struck by a heavy object without falling over. Virginia Tech and the University of Pittsburgh have taken a  different approach, creating a much smaller robot, the Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot, or THOR.

Those three are just a few of the teams who will compete in eight incredibly challenging robotic tasks, which DARPA describes as follows:  

Drive and Exit Utility Vehicle: The hardest single task and the one that requires the most robot-human interaction. The operators must direct the robots to drive the vehicle safely despite occasional communications disruptions. Getting out of the driver's seat poses significant strength and dexterity challenges for the robots.

Walk Across Rough Terrain: The robots must maintain their balance and identify safe routes for placement of limbs.

Remove Debris from Doorway: Robots must demonstrate a wide range of motion, in addition to balance and strength, to clear a path forward.

Open Series of Doors: Moving the doors in an arc challenges the robots' perception and dexterity. The robots must figure out how to align and move themselves as they open each door.

Climb Industrial Ladder: To avoid falls, the robots must safely navigate the ladder and maintain their balance as they climb. Strength is required to stop a fall.

Cut Through Wall: Using power tools tests the robots' strength, dexterity and ability to perceive their environment.  The robots must also simultaneously apply rigid force to hold a tool, yet demonstrate the flexibility to smoothly manipulate it.

Carry and Connect Fire Hose: The robots must identify the standpipe and then transport a bulky, non-rigid item (the fire hose) to it. The robots must then have sufficient dexterity and strength to attach the hose to a standpipe and open the spigot.

Locate and Close Leaking Valves: The robots must identify the valves, determine which ones are open and have sufficient range of motion to turn the valve wheels in an arc to close them.

There's one thing the robots aren't competing in: speed. DARPA says that it's too early in the development of the robots to require them to do the tasks quickly. The robots will have 30 minutes to complete each task. 

"We know the robots are slow and unsteady at this point--they're much like a one-year-old human in terms of locomotion and grasping abilities and much farther behind that in brainpower," said Pratt. "The robots are taking 'baby steps' this year, but their performance will establish a reference point for what we can expect from the teams that return next year for the DRC Finals. We want that event to be much more difficult and force the robots to demonstrate useful capabilities in realistic disaster scenarios."

The DRC was created partially in response to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown. According to Pratt, if robots had been on the scene to infiltrate the reactor buildings during the first 24 hours, the extent of the disaster could have been lessened.

"The tech we're trying to develop is to allow human beings and robots to work together, in environments that are too dangerous for human beings to go into themselves," said Pratt.

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