Last week in Pomono, California, 23 robots competed for $3.5 million in prizes. One robot emerged as the victor, and the herald of a future where humans and robots work together (hopefully not against each other). But many failed, spectacularly.
The DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) was inspired after the Fukushima nuclear disaster made clear the need to develop more robust, dexterous robotic rescuers. The challenge itself involved navigating through a simulated disaster environment and preforming tasks such as turning a valve, driving a vehicle and clambering over debris. For IEEE Spectrum, Erico Guizzo and Evan Ackerman write:
Lots of robots fell over, and a bunch of robots fell over multiple times. As much as nobody wanted to see a robot fall, everybody wanted to see a robot fall, and the possibility of falls (and reality of falls) kept everyone watching on the edge of our seats.
A compilation of all the falls from IEEE Spectrum provides the opportunity to simultaneously grimace and giggle for those who didn’t make last week’s event in person.
"These robots are big and made of lots of metal and you might assume people seeing them would be filled with fear and anxiety," says the event’s organizer, Gill Pratt, in a statement. "But we heard groans of sympathy when those robots fell. And what did people do every time a robot scored a point? They cheered! It's an extraordinary thing, and I think this is one of the biggest lessons from DRC — the potential for robots not only to perform technical tasks for us, but to help connect people to one another."
The robots here don’t make many decisions for themselves. Instead, they scan and measure spaces before passing that information to their operator teams, a quarter of mile away. In the end, human judgement is still needed. But the idea is that the robots can go where humans cannot. Still, the tottering progress and moments spent pondering the next move all add up until, as Mona Lalwani notes for Engadget, "it seems they need humans more than humans need them."
The winning robot was from the South Korean Team KAIST, named DRC Hubo. It completed the course and beat the challengers in 44 minutes and 28 seconds. DRC Hubo’s sucess comes in part from its ability to stand on two legs like a human, but also kneel on wheels built into its knees to move about with greater stability. Guizzo and Ackerman note how the others fared in IEEE Spectrum:
Other teams also performed well in the competition, but setbacks made their robots lose time. These included Tartan Rescue’s CHIMP, a robot with legs and tank-like tracks that was the only robot to get back up after a fall; the University of Bonn’s Momaro, an elegantly simple wheeled machine with a spinning head and two arms; NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s RoboSimian, a four-legged robot that seemed to perform yoga moves; IHMC’s ATLAS, a large hydraulic-electric humanoid made by Boston Dynamics (and used by other DRC teams).
Here’s the winning bot in action during the door opening task, no stumbles in sight: