It was definitely an athletic event for the 21st century — sixteen world-class robots competing in the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials to determine which of them will compete in the Robotics Finals for a grand prize of $2 million.
The trials, which took place last December at the Homestead Miami Speedway in Florida, were sponsored by DARPA, the U. S. Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. And as much as building a better robot thrills any Star Wars fan who ever wanted a sidekick like C-3PO, there’s a deeper purpose to the event — developing a robot that can take over for humans in hazardous disaster situations.
Instead of javelin, diving and gymnastics, the bots competed in an octathlon of events: driving a vehicle, walking on varied terrain, climbing a ladder, clearing debris, opening doors, cutting through a wall with a power tool, closing valves and unreeling a hose.
Although there were a few four-legged robots (like a dog and a chimp), the stars of the show were the humanoids.
One of the biggest challenges roboticists face is getting a two-legged robot to balance as we humans do. So for the challenge, the biped robots were tethered. And even so, they took a few spills. But then, so did great Olympians like Mary Decker.
Google dominated the Trials (as they sometimes seem to dominate most of the known universe). Their SCHAFT robot, seen here, bested the competition by a wide margin.
The games have just begun though, and University of Pennsylvania finalists Thor and Trooper (climbing ladder below) have their robotic eyes on the grand prize. Dr. Dan Lee, a professor at U Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and director of the school’s GRASP Robotics Lab, is optimistic. “Yes, Google really set the standard,” he told us. “But as Shaun White said, if you see one competitor doing a new trick, you go back home and figure out how to do that trick.”
Another robot was outstanding in his own way, and if there were a prize for handsomest bot, it would have gone to NASA’s “Superhero Robot” Valkyrie (pictured at top). Beautiful but dumb, he scored zero and tied for last place.
GM is no stranger to this kind of daunting DARPA challenge. A self-driving Chevy Tahoe designed by Carnegie Mellon University took home first place — and $2 million — in 2007’s DARPA Urban Challenge.