DARPA’s Battle-of-the-Robots Kicks Off

By Allyson Versprille

POMONA, Calif. – Money, pride and prestige are on the line as robotics teams from all over the world meet in Southern California this weekend to compete in a Pentagon-sponsored contest.
The DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals, organized by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, kicked off June 5 at the Fairplex in Pomona. The two-day event will pit 24 teams from the United States, Asia and Europe against each other to see which group’s robot can most effectively and efficiently execute a series of disaster response tasks assigned by the agency.

The teams with the best robots won’t just win bragging rights. The first-place crew will bring home $2 million, while the second-place and third-place squads will get $1 million and $500,000, respectively.

Gill Pratt, a robotics program manager at DARPA, said the competition was inspired by the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Actions of emergency responders were limited by the risk of radiation exposure, and their inability to take effective measures in the early stages of the incident led to an even greater catastrophe, Pratt told reporters June 4 during a preview of the competition.

“What we realized is that not only for nuclear disasters but for many other sorts of disasters, it’s possible during those golden hours and golden days at the beginning … to alter the course of the disaster to try to make it less severe,” he said.

DARPA created the competition to spur innovation that leads to robots that can operate effectively in dangerous environments where humans can’t go.

“We used Fukushima as our inspiring example, but it’s essentially a broad theme of emergency response to disasters in general,” Pratt said. “And because … that is a common problem for the whole world. This is a completely open [robotics] challenge and it’s international.”

Half of the teams are from the United States. The rest hail from Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Germany and Italy.

The robots will be given eight tasks to complete on the DARPA course: drive a utility vehicle; exit the vehicle; open a door and enter a building; cut through a wall; remove or navigate around rubble; climb stairs; locate and close a valve; and carry out a “surprise task” that the teams don’t yet know about.

The surprise task was thrown into the mix to further simulate a real-world scenario where things do not always go according to plan, Pratt said.

“We wanted to show that these robots could adapt and that they could actually adapt to circumstances that were unexpected,” he said.

The machines will have one hour to complete the assignments without the aid of external power sources. The robots and their human partners — who will be issuing task orders remotely — will also be forced to work in a degraded communications environment to mimic the effects of a real natural or manmade disaster, Pratt said.

The teams will be judged based on the how many tasks their robots accomplish and how long it takes them to do them. The winners will be announced the evening of June 6 during the closing ceremony.

The competition isn’t the only thing happening at the DARPA gathering. There is also a giant technology expo featuring more than 70 exhibits and demonstrations by companies and academic institutions. DARPA officials have described the event as the “Woodstock of robotics.”

Topics: Robotics

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