What’s in store for DARPA’s annual robotics contest?

NC STATE

March, 2015
What’s in store for DARPA’s annual robotics contest?

The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has chosen the 25 robotics companies invited to compete for the $3.5 million prize awarded at their yearly competition, held in June 2015 in Pomona, Calif. Each company can enter one humanoid robot into the arena – an obstacle course designed to simulate a disaster zone.

This will be the fourth consecutive year that DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the Pentagon’s high-tech research unit, has hosted the event. Companies from around the world – Germany, Italy, Japan, China, South Korea, the United States – will compete to see robot can best navigate the disaster area and can accomplish the most goals tasked.

The humanoids will need to complete the course in an hour. Some of the tasks include: driving a vehicle (Yes! Driving robots!) to the disaster simulation, walking through a field studded with obstacles, finding and closing a valve, performing wiring tasks, successfully cutting a hole in a wall, climbing a set of stairs and then leaving the building. It is possible that a surprise task will be introduced into the challenge, something that has sparked much discussion.

Gill Pratt, of LiveScience, was quoted in a news conference saying, “We are trying to make robots and human beings work together. Robots are very good at working in dangerous environments, while humans are very good at making judgment calls.”

As the robot completes tasks, the teams will earn points. Whichever robot successfully completes the most tasks wins, but in the case of a tie (in which two or more robots have completed the same number of tasks), the robot that was successful in the shortest amount of time will be declared the winner. According to DARPA, the top three teams will receive a combined $3.5 million.

Anyone who has competed in a robotics event before knows how crucial robot-human communication is. However, this year DARPA has taken the challenge up a notch by announcing that the organizers of the competition will actually disrupt controller communication with the robots during the event. This means the robot will need to be designed to be able to operate semi-autonomously. Even more challenging: no tethers will be allowed during the event. This means that every robot will need to have the ability to either maintain balance (regardless of obstacles encountered) or have the ability to get up and continue if they fall over during the challenge.

However, enticing as the prize money is and exciting as the event itself is, some companies are skeptical about the competition. In 2013, Google acquired Schaft Inc., a Japanese robotics company. A reported in the Wall Street Journal, Schaft’s submission was accepted in the early round of picks, but they withdrew their entry into DARPA’s Robotics Challenge. While Google has not given a public reason why they withdrew, there has been speculation that Google, amongst other companies, wants to know exactly why the Department of Defense is interested in robotics.

However, several of the companies who have been selected for the competition have collaborated on artificial intelligence projects with NASA and Boston Dynamics (also owned by Google), and that both of these outfits have performed work related to DARPA’s Atlas robot. Atlas will be competing; it should be interesting to see if DARPA’s own robot can beat the competition.

Tell us what you think! What surprise challenge you think should be introduced into the disaster scene? What your thoughts about the future of humanoid robots?

Sources:
http://www.darpa.mil/NewsEvents/Releases/2015/03/05.aspx

http://www.csmonitor.com/csmlists/topic/Google+Inc
http://www.bostondynamics.com/
http://www-aig.jpl.nasa.gov/
http://www.csmonitor.com/csmlists/topic/LiveScience.com

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