Disaster-response robots compete in DARPA challenge

Seventeen robots designed to work in disasters-zones have been competing over the weekend in the second round of the DARPA Robotic Challenge.

Launched in 2011 as a response to the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster, the competition aims to foster development of robotic systems capable of actively intervening in situations too dangerous for human workers.

Coming the first in a series of challenging tasks and trials mimicking conditions after a major disaster, has been the Google-owned super-strong humanoid robot designed and built by a Japanese company SCHAFT.

The robots had to prove they are capable of opening and closing doors, cut through a reinforced concrete wall, locate and turn off leaking valves and navigate through debris-covered terrain. In one of the tasks, DARPA officials even disrupted communication links between the robots and their operators.

The winning SCHAFT robot scored 27 points out of 32, followed by the design of the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition Robotics with 20 points. The Tartan Rescue team from the Carnegie Mellon University have taken the third spot with its human-size chimpanzee-like CHIMP robot.

Though being the front-runner for the first half of the competition, CHIMP, capable of grasping objects like a real chimpanzee, eventually lost the lead after struggling with a spring-loaded door.

"Murphy's law is very big in robotics," said Daniel Lee, a robotics professor at the University of Pennsylvania and program director for Team THOR, an agile, human-form robot, whose acronym stands for Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot. "It's very difficult to account for all of the uncertainties that you're going to face," he said.

Several designs, including ones from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Lockheed Martin, were based on a six-foot-two-inch humanoid robot named Atlas that DARPA contracted from Boston Dynamics, a company that was spun out of MIT in 1992 and recently acquired by Google.

The 17 competing teams previously passed the June 2013 software round – the Virtual Robotics Challenge. The eight teams with the highest scores will be awarded $1m in funding to prepare for the final round in late 2014, where a winner will take $2m.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), having a history of leading research in breakthrough technologies including the Internet and global positioning satellites, realised more effort was needed in the robotics area to address real-life challenges after the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster.

After the earthquake and subsequent tsunami caused the meltdown of the Fukushima reactors, radiation built up quickly, making it too dangerous for human workers to intervene.

DARPA sent robots designed to disarm improvised explosive devices in Iraq to Japan, yet by the time workers were trained to use them it was too late to prevent a nuclear meltdown.

"What we realized was ... these robots couldn't do anything other than observe," said Gill Pratt, program manager for the DARPA Robotics Challenge. "What they needed was a robot to go into that reactor building and shut off the valves."

The DARPA Robotic Challenge Finals will take place at the end of 2014 and will require robots to attempt a circuit of consecutive physical tasks, with degraded communications between the robots and their operators.

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