DARPA Robotics Challenge: Why Does DARPA Do It?

By Cheryl Pellerin
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s three-year-long Robotics Challenge ends this weekend in Pomona among the Mexican fan palms in Los Angeles County, California, and Program Manager Dr. Gill Pratt talks about challenges and what DARPA and the world get from them.

The job at DARPA is to push the limits of the possible. To do that, Pratt says, the agency puts out research contracts and grants and finds companies they call producers to develop the technology.

“Why would we use a challenge?” Pratt asks.

In a challenge, DARPA focuses on certain technologies and creates a competition for experts from all over the world. Then they compete against each other for $1 million or more to do things that no one has ever been able to do.

That’s what’s happening today and tomorrow during the DARPA Robotic Challenge Finals.

The Carnegie Mellon University engineered Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform, or "Chimp," disaster response robot is competing in the Robotics Challenge. (Photo: Carnegie Mellon University via Popular Science/Released)

The Carnegie Mellon University engineered Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform, or “Chimp,” disaster response robot is competing in the Robotics Challenge. (Photo: Carnegie Mellon University via Popular Science/Released)

First, Pratt says, challenges create tremendous collaboration.

“Teams get very excited about challenges …. “They’re working incredibly hard, sleeping underneath their desks at night and working around the clock,” he says. “This typically does not happen on your usual research contract.”

When people ask Pratt about what will come from the robot challenge, he tells them about a series of DARPA challenges involving driverless cars.

The first DARPA Grand Challenge for driverless cars took place in 2004 with 15 cars in the Mojave Desert. None of the robot vehicles finished the 150-mile route.

“A $1 million prize, no winner,” Pratt said. “After no one won, you could say that wasn’t such a good idea. But the DARPA director said, ‘Let’s do it again.’”

In 2005, 23 vehicles competed in the second DARPA Grand Challenge. Five completed the 123-mile off-road course and one took the $2 million prize.

In 2007, DARPA raised the prize and complicated the challenge by making it an urban event, with robot vehicles driving in the city with other cars, Pratt says, some of them driven by people. In that one, three competitors won the top three prizes.

“That was amazing but look at what it did not do,” Pratt notes, adding that the next year there weren’t driverless cars all over the place.

“Now a decade after those challenges we have tremendous investment by … companies trying to build cars that are safer with driver assist and cars that can drive by themselves,” he says.

Pratt gets questions about when the robots will be ready to help in disasters. And he got a media question recently about whether he’d consider sending the Robotic Challenge robots to help in the Nepal earthquake.

“The answer is no,” he said. “ … They’re prototypes … created with the idea of showing what is possible.”

Pratt added, “I don’t know how long it’s going to take. I don’t think anybody does. DARPA is about demonstrating what’s possible — it’s not about suddenly the next year [a prototype] comes to market. That’s for others to do.”

He also was asked what DARPA would do now that the robotic challenge is ending. Pratt said he’s not allowed to tell, but you know DARPA soon will create another hard, exciting challenge.

That’s probably what they had in mind when they painted these words on the welcome tent here under the DARPA logo: “There is no final frontier.”

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recognizes that there’s no final frontier. (Photo: Fabian Montgomery/Defense Media Activity/Released)

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recognizes that there’s no final frontier. (Photo: Fabian Montgomery/Defense Media Activity/Released)

Watch the live stream of the Robotics Challenge.

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