Judgement Day Update: DARPA Robotics Challenge!

darpa-robotics-challenge-conceptFor the past two years, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been holding a series of trials where robots are tasked with navigating disaster areas and performing tasks with tools and materials provided. This is known as the Robotics Challenge, which took place from Dec.20th to 21st and was streamed live from Florida’s Homestead Miami Speedway.

And this year, Google’s Schaft humanoid robot took home the top prize after scoring 27 points out of a total of 32 points. IHMC Robotics, based in Florida, grabbed second place, while Carnegie Mellon University’s Team Tartan Rescue placed third. Eight of the top teams that participated in the challenge may receive as much as $1 million in funding from DARPA, ahead of further trials next year with a $2 million prize.

schaft_robotBuilt by a Japanese start-up – one of Google’s many recent acquisitions – the Schaft is an updated version of the Humanoid Robot Project robot (HRP-2), with hardware and software modifications that include more powerful actuators, a walking/stabilization system, and a capacitor instead of a battery. The robot stands 1.48 m (4.8 ft) tall, weighs in at 95 kg (209 lb), and is generally unappealing to the eye.

However, what it lacks in photogenic quality, it makes up for in performance. Over the course of the trials, the bipedal robot was able to bring stable walking and significant torque power to fore as it opened doors, wielded hoses, and cut away part of a wall. However, team Schaft lost points when a gust of wind blew a door out of the robot’s hand and the robot was unable to exit a vehicle after navigated a driving course successfully.

Check out the video of the Schaft in action:


Initially, over 100 teams applied to compete when the challenged was announced in April of last year. After a series of reviews and virtual challenges, the field was narrowed down to 16 competing in four “tracks. On Track A, Schaft was joined by the RoboSimian, the robot recently built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Another primate-like robot was the Tartan Rescue CHIMP, a red headless robot with rollers on its feet.

At the other end of the spectrum was the Johnson Space Center’s Valkyrie, a biped, anthropomorphic robot that honestly looks like something out of anime or Tony Stark’s closet. This latter aspect is due largely to the fact that it has a glowing chest light, though the builders claim that it’s just a bulge to make room in the torso for linear actuators to move the waist.

Valkyrie_robotOfficially designated “R5” by NASA, Val was designed to be a high-powered rescue robot, capable of traversing uneven terrain, climbing ladders, using tools, and even driving. According to the designers, the Valkyrie was designed to be human in form because:

a human form makes sense because we’re humans, and these robots will be doing the jobs that we don’t want to be doing because they’re too dangerous. To that end, Valkyrie has seven degree of freedom arms with actuated wrists and hands, each with three fingers and a thumb. It has a head that can tilt and swivel, a waist that can rotate, and six degree of freedom legs complete with feet equipped with six-axis force-torque sensors.

Unfortunately, the robot failed in its tasks this year, scoring 0 points and placing amongst the last three competitors. I guess NASA has some bugs to work out before this patently badass design can go toe-to-toe with other disaster robots. Or perhaps the anthropomorphic concept is just not up to the task. Only time and further trials will tell. And of course, there’s a video of Val in action too:


The B and C track teams are often difficult to tell apart because they all used Atlas robots. Meanwhile, the D track teams brought several of their own robots to the fore. These included Chiron, a robot that resembles a a metallic sea louse; Mojovation, a distinctly minimalist robot; South Korea’s Kaist, and China’s Intelligent Pioneer.

DARPA says that the point of the competition is to provide a baseline from which to develop robotics for disaster response. Events such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, which not only damaged the reactors but made it impossible for crews to respond in time, demonstrate that robots have a potential role. DARPA believes that robots that could navigate the ruins and work in radioactive environments would have been of great help.

DARPA Robotics Challenge The problem is that current robots simply aren’t up to task. Specialized robots can’t be built to deal with the unpredictable, full telepresence control is neither practical nor desirable, and most robots tend to be a bit on the delicate side. What’s needed is a robot that can work on its own, use tools and vehicles at hand, deal with the unpredictable, and is durable and agile enough to operate in the ruins of a building.

That’s where DARPA Robotics Challenge comes in. Over the next few years, DARPA will use the results of the competition to draw a baseline that will benefit engineers working on the next generation of robots. For now, the top eight of the teams go on with DARPA funding to compete in the Robotics Finals event late next year, for a US $2 million prize.

DARPACourseIf there’s one thing the current challenge demonstrated, its that anthropomorphic designs are not well-suited to the tasks they were given. And ironic outcome, considering that one of the aims of the challenge is to develop robots capable of performing human tasks, but under conditions considered unsafe for humans. As always, the top prize goes to those who can think outside the box!

And in the meantime, enjoy this video of the Robot Challenge, taken on the second day of the trials.


Sources: gizmag.com, news.cnet.com, wired.com, IO9.com, theroboticchallenge.org

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