DARPA Robotics Challenge: People Love Robots!

By Cheryl Pellerin
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

You could hear it from the grandstand even inside the media center — a great booming resonance.

RoboSimian, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory's entry to the DARPA Robotics Challenge. (Photo: DARPA/Released)

RoboSimian, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s entry to the DARPA Robotics Challenge. (Photo: DARPA/Released)

“J! – P! – L!”
“J! – P! – L!”
“J! – P! – L!”

Every time the four-limbed robot called RoboSimian, developed by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, scored a point the crowd would go wild and a large contingent of special fans in the grandstand would begin their chant.

In fact, whenever any robot scored a point, there arose much clapping, cheering and hollering from some of the 10,000 or so people who attended the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Robotics Challenge finals held June 5-6 in Pomona, California.

And some of the audience responded with wails and groans when a robot fell or failed in one of its tasks.

Emotions on edge: Members of Team DRC-Hubo, University of Nevada-Las Vegas College of Engineering, emote as their robot Metal Rebel goes through the course during DRC Day 1. (Photo: DARPA/Released)

Emotions on edge: Members of Team DRC-Hubo, University of Nevada-Las Vegas College of Engineering, emote as their robot Metal Rebel goes through the course during DRC Day 1. (Photo: DARPA/Released)

This show of emotion by people for robots, DARPA Robotics Challenge program manager Dr. Gill Pratt said at the final press conference, could be one of the most important discoveries arising from the DRC.

DARPA held the challenge to move the field forward so someday robots will be able to help save lives in the first hours and days of an earthquake or tsunami or terrorist attack.

During the challenge finals, 23 human-robot teams competed for $3.5 million in prizes, working to get through eight tasks in an hour or less, under their own onboard power and with severely degraded communications between robot and operator.

After the two-day contest, a robot from South Korea took first prize and American robots took second and third prizes. JPL’s high-scoring Team RoboSimian wasn’t among the prize winners. But if Pratt is right, all 23 robots in the DRC demonstrated something that could serve all robots — and people too — for all time.

“Every time a robot scored a point, the crowd cheered, and they cheered despite the fact that the event was one robot going through eight simple tasks and taking nearly an hour to do it,” Pratt marveled.

Along with all the new robot capability, he said, the DRC produced a different kind of discovery about robots.

“There’s some incredible untapped affinity between people and robots that we saw … for the first time,” said Pratt, adding that ordinary people identified with the robots, feeling empathy and sympathy, projecting their own emotions onto steel and aluminum, sensors and copper wire.

When Pratt considers that human-root affinity, he said he thinks about people who are elderly and who, even more than their physical disabilities, suffer from being alone.

“I see a potential for robots to connect people to each other, he added, “and to create a society where people actually feel better more of the time.

Lots of roboticists feel the same way.

In third place was Team Tartan Rescue from Carnegie Mellon University and the National Robotics Engineering Center in Pittsburgh. Their robot is CHIMP.

“You work with these machines for a long time and you kind of get attached to them,” NREC Director Dr. Tony Stentz said. “When the robot is out on the course you start to think about it as kind of having a life of its own.”

Team TARTAN posed for a group photo in preparation for the DARPA Robitics Challenge on June 2, 2015 in Pomona, California. CHIMP (CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform) took third place in the 2013 DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials. Carnegie Mellon University-NREC designed CHIMP to work in dangerous, degraded environments that were built for people, not robots. (Photo: Sun L. Vega/DARPA/Released)

Team TARTAN posed for a group photo in preparation for the DARPA Robitics Challenge on June 2, 2015 in Pomona, California. CHIMP (CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform) took third place in the 2013 DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials. Carnegie Mellon University-NREC designed CHIMP to work in dangerous, degraded environments that were built for people, not robots. (Photo: Sun L. Vega/DARPA/Released)

The future of robotics, Stentz said, “is one where robots collaborate with humans, and for that to be successful it’s important for the two to build bonds between each other.”

Related article and video:
Robots from South Korea, U.S. Win DARPA Finals

Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter for additional highlights from the #DARPADRC and, of course, follow us on Facebook and Twitter for military science and technology updates!

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