The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency runs an annual robotics competition designed to lead to advanced robots. A recent challenged focused on developing self-driving cars, but DARPA also wants to support work on robots that can operate autonomously.
The DARPA Robotics Challenge 2014 actually started in 2013 and produced a group of finalists in December of that year. The prize-winning round will be held later this year or in 2015.
The eight finalists are competing for a total prize of $2 million. The finalists are from Google, UCLA and Virginia Tech and NASA in the United States. A joint project between designers in Virginia and German and a robotics team from South Korea are the other two finalists.
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory has a robot named RoboSimian in the completion. That team’s participation in the finals was announced previously.
Three teams will be self-funded. Google’s robot, called Schaft after the Google division that built it, will continue in the competition as a self-funded effort. RoboSimian will also be self-funded for the finals. The South Koreans, Team KAIST, will fund their own DRC-HUBO robot.
The other two robots will be supported by DARPA funding. Team ViGIR (Virginia-Germany Interdisciplinary) and Team THOR (Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot) will both be funded by DARPA.
An article in Science World Report raised the possibility that the DARPA-sponsored work could lead to robots that are able to search, identify targets and fire without any human intervention. Current armed robots, such as the Predator drone, are remote-controlled weapon platforms rather than autonomous robots.
Still, the DARPA project is designed to lead to autonomous robots being developed.
According to The Verge, the real goal of DARPA’s contest is to spur development of humanoid robots that could be used for, among other things, rescue work. The robots in the competition have to perform eight tasks including climbing a ladder, opening a door and clearing debris. The teams score points on each task.
The close relationship between Google and DARPA is getting much more attention that the potential for killer robots. Google owns two of the companies with robots in the competition. In addition to Schaft, Google subsidiary Boston Dynamics is involved as its Atlas robots are being used by some of the teams for their robotics work. Schaft received $2.6 million in DARPA funds just for the competition.
Google was going to receive DARPA funding for its project, but moved to the unfunded track in an effort to distance itself from what could be seen as a too-close relationship with DARPA. The move may have been sparked by a desire on Google’s part to distance itself from DARPA.
The finals will be held from December, 2014 to June, 2015 according to DARPA. The precise dates and locations will be announced later. That uncertainty seems to be related to DARPA’s interest in getting more unfunded teams in the competition. Those teams might need extra time to get ready. The new entrants might also use the Valkyrie robot platform developed by NASA’s Johnson Spaceflight Center.
Regardless of the timing, DARPA is moving ahead with efforts to develop robots that can work autonomously on a range of tasks.
By Chester Davis