Robots fight it out in the Darpa Robotics Challenge

A dozen robotics teams will battle it out for $3.5m (£2.3m) worth of prizes in a robotics competition backed by the Pentagon.

A total of 24 teams will take part in the Darpa robot challenge this Friday and Saturday in Pomona, California.

The robots are challenged to carry out a series of disaster-related tasks designed to mimic the difficulties faced in disaster zones.

The tasks include driving a car, opening and walking through a door, cutting a hole in a wall and climbing up steps. The fleet of robots will have to demonstrate their physical powers, agility, awareness and cognition in an obstacle course.

The final will see each machine having to complete a task in 60 minutes, with each team given two attempts to complete the run.

The roboticists are allowed to provide remote guidance, but don’t have power over specific movements. Furthermore, the robots will be powered by batteries during the event, with no recharging permitted.

The machines will take turns in driving a car; climbing out of the car; opening and walking through a door; opening a valve; using a drill to cut a hole drawn on to a wall; crossing a debris-filled terrain; climbing steps and an as-yet-unspecified mystery event.

A point is awarded for each task that the robot completes and those with equal scores will be ranked based on timing.

A total of 22 of the competing robots are two-legged, human-like machines, with a head, arms and legs. The other robots resemble animals and rovers, although the crux of the competition is the machine's level of autonomy and the sophistication of the user interfaces that the teams use to control them.

Several designs, including ones from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Lockheed Martin, were based on a 6'2" humanoid robot named Atlas which DARPA contracted from Boston Dynamics, a company that was spun out of MIT in 1992 and recently acquired by Google.

Nothing to fear

DARPA, the research arm of the US Department of Defence, was inspired to start the competition after the 2011 tsunami in Japan, when a humanoid robot could have prevented the Fukushima nuclear power plant explosion, officials said.  

“We don’t know what the next disaster will be, but we know we have to develop the technology to help us address these kinds of disaster,” Gill Pratt, Darpa’s program manager, said in a recent call with reporters.

However, not everyone is on board with the technological advancements of the semiautonomous mechanical species.

Some officials fear that the technologies in weapons systems are racing ahead of the policy that should regulate their use.

In 2013, Christof Heyns, the UN’s Special Rapporteur, called for a ban on what he said were lethal autonomous robots.

Darpa’s organisers said that the robots are designed for humanitarian purposes, not war, and the challenge course is a disaster zone, not a battlefield.

Even though they may look like the iconic Terminator robot character with their brusque locomotion and empty eyes, at this point the robots are harmless - helpless even - having the dexterity of a child.

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