On Friday and Saturday, the Darpa Robotics Challenge – the “Robolympics”, unofficially…completes its final competition, with 25 teams of engineers and scientists giving orders to huge machines trundling across a landscape designed to simulate the impassible environment that greeted aid workers after the Fukushima Daiichi reactor in Japan melted down multiple times in 2011.
Engineers tried to help, but no robots could navigate the hazardous terrain and disaster ensued, rendering a huge area around the plant uninhabitable after toxic steam exploded into the skies. The radioactive leftovers are still emitting a million watts of heat.
If a Darpa contestant is able to navigate the terrain successfully, and in a short amount of time (each team has an hour to run the course) it will become the richest robot in town: first prize is $2m, second prize is $1m, and third gets $500,000.
The public event is a cross between the Consumer Electronics Show and an episode of Mythbusters. Inside the Fairplex, the stands were filled on Friday with people cheering for their favorite androids. Outside was a big expo with kids running around playing with (or staring terrified at) all kinds of robots: some dancing, some playing music, some swimming in a giant tank where they can be piloted with a video game controller. One company, Ekso, makes robotic trousers that make it easier to carry a backpack.
The purpose of the main event, however, is deadly serious.
“The idea, inspired by Fukushima, is to come up with a simulation of a disaster that is like [that],” said Dr Gill Pratt, the avuncular, eloquent director of the Tactical Technology Office (TTO) program at Darpa that oversees the project.
Darpa is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the arm of the US Defense Department that is responsible in large part for the creation of the computer network, Arpanet, that became the internet.
“The teams will not have any human help for the robots themselves, and the key element, again, between the human controllers and the robot is a very degraded communication link,” Pratt explained.,,
“Particularly when you need to improvise, the environment you’re going into is a human environment, and a humanoid robot is designed to take on a human environment and we can adapt to it like humans,” Darwin Caldwell said.
“If you’ve got a quadruped robot, or a robot with wheels, it’s not really designed for that environment, so it might be able to adapt. But we know humans can go in there. We know humans can do that. That’s one thing we’re certain of.”
Some DARPA competitions don’t come close to succeeding in the first year of trials. Or more. But, unlike many extremely narrow experimental targets proposed for military trials, DARPA projects often have a broad framework and move sooner rather than later into civilian-focused experimentation, potentially global adoption.
Like autonomous automobiles or the Internet.