A robot funded by Google dominated the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials 2013, winning 27 of a possible 32 points over eight tasks. The trials are part of a global effort to develop and build robots that can be used to help victims after a disaster. With this goal in mind, the majority of the entrants were humanoid machines and the tasks ranged from walking through difficult terrain, drilling through walls and driving cars. The entrant funded by Google, built by the Japanese Team SCHAFT, handily completed all the trials presented, winning “best in task” for ladder climbing, rough terrain navigating, debris clearing and hose handling. NASA’s Valkyrie was surprisingly unable to score a single point throughout the trials.
Google’s victory comes on the heels of its acquisition of eight robotics companies from around the world, including SCHAFT from Japan and most recently the American company Boston Dynamics, maker of the BigDog and Atlas robots. With the intention of becoming a major player in the robotics scene itself, Google is accomplishing goals at a fine pace. Although the robot funded by Google dominated at DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials 2013 is intended for disaster applications, the hardware and software knowledge gained in the trials can be applied to many different machines, as seen with the building of LittleDog, a miniaturized version of BigDog that may one day crawl through rubble to rescue trapped civilians and sniff for explosives.
Although all of the robots on display are very advanced, spectators at the DARPA challenge mostly watched handlers reset machines after they got stuck or waited for robots to execute actions or simply fall over. The Google-funded robot that dominated DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials 2013 was the work of Team SCHAFT, hailing from Japan and running both custom hardware and software. The humanoid HRP-2 runs a custom software that operates its limbs and reads data from its various sensors, and all of the parts are custom made in house. There were only eight slots available for teams to advance to the next round of challenges slated to take place in late 2014, meaning that half of the 15 competing teams were eliminated. The finalists are comprised of companies from around the world, some fielding new machines and custom software, while others only wrote new software to guide existing Boston Dynamics Atlas robots through the DARPA challenges. Of the top five qualifiers, four are running custom machines, with the last four places rounded out by teams running customized Atlas software.
These tests are intended to show that it is possible to build machines that can spare humans from having to be sent into dangerous places. That a robot funded by Google dominated DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials 2013 is confirmation of what onlookers could plainly see during the test: although there is potential in these machines, there is still a long way to go. The information gleaned from these tests will be used to make machines that are smarter, faster and less likely to fall on their face when they try to rescue people from a burning building.
By Daniel O’Brien