DARPA Robotics Challenge: Could You Do This in an Hour?

By Cheryl Pellerin
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

At the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals this week, 24 robots, with their human partners, have an hour to do the following things and one surprise task.

  • Drive a utility vehicle
  • Get out of the vehicle and open a door
  • Find and close a valve
  • Use a tool to cut through a wall
  • Clear debris or negotiate rough terrain
  • Climb stairs

One of the biggest challenges for the teams will be severely degraded communications, a hallmark of every disaster. This is bad because the human partner, far from this simulated disaster, has to tell the robot what to do.

If you go to the movies, none of this may sound too hard.

The DRC finals will occur June 5-6 at Fairplex in Pomona, California. The event requires robots to attempt a circuit of consecutive physical tasks. This robot, Momaro, was created by Team NimbRo Rescue. The team is part of the Autonomous Intelligent Systems Group at the Computer Science Institute of University of Bonn, Germany. (Photo: DARPA/Released)

The DRC finals will occur June 5-6 at Fairplex in Pomona, California. The event requires robots to attempt a circuit of consecutive physical tasks. This robot, Momaro, was created by Team NimbRo Rescue. The team is part of the Autonomous Intelligent Systems Group at the Computer Science Institute of University of Bonn, Germany. (Photo: DARPA/Released)

Thanks to Hollywood, even five decades ago the 8-foot-tall metal robot Gort was a member of an interstellar police force that traveled in flying saucers and saved the citizens of Earth from killing each other with an internal laser-like beam and other abilities.

Years later, the T-1000 mimetic poly-alloy Terminator 2 and even the less capable Series 800 Terminator 1 could travel back in time AND do all these tasks.

And up ahead in the blade-running future, biorobotic androids called Nexus 6 replicants could do everything a person could do, and more. Not bad for skin jobs.

Today, in the here-and-now world of technology, hardware and increasingly complex software, despite work on robots since the early 20th century, they are only about as smart as 2-year-old humans, and about as stable, DARPA DRC Program Manager Dr. Gill Pratt likes to say.

And DARPA is working to change that.

DARPA scientists tried using robots to help people as early as 2001, when the Twin Towers were attacked in New York, and again in 2011 when a massive earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan and caused a level-7 nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

DARPA and robot companies everywhere sent robots to help during both disasters, but the learning curve for operators was too long or the robots just didn’t have the right capabilities.

So three years ago DARPA launched the DRC, and the robot teams that participate in the DRC Finals this week, even if no robot finishes the course — although Gill Pratt thinks some of them will –- will be the most advanced robots on the planet.

With their human partners, they’ll have mobility, dexterity, manipulation and perception. And most important – they’ll have at least the beginnings of the capabilities they need in disasters to save lives.

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Watch this preview video of the #DARPADRC.


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