Robots Compete for U.S. Military’s DARPA Challenge

Robots Compete in DARPA ChallengeA total of 16 teams and their robots competed in the U.S. Military’s DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) Robotics Challenge at Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend. Created in 1958, DARPA was the military’s effort to maintain and improve their technological superiority.

DARPA has been known to fund some now-popular technologies in the past. A few of those technologies were the internet and GPS or Global Positioning Satellites. Now DARPA is concentrating on fueling the design and development of robots that can assist us in places deemed too dangerous for humans.

This particular challenge was started in 2011 when scientists and nuclear physicists were challenged by Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. The plant was hit by a tsunami after a massive earthquake generated the massive wave that wiped out many shoreline areas on Japan’s western shore. Estimates say that 160,000 people were forced out of the area after the tragic event.

After the tsunami, Tokyo Electric Power Company was unable to enter the reactor complex due to the massive amounts of intense radiation that existed in the area. The plants back-up power had failed to cool the reactors ultimately ending in an explosion and melt-down.

DARPA tried to assist in preventing a meltdown by providing the Japanese with robots that were designed to disarm explosives in Iraq. Unfortunately by the time they learned how to use the robots, the plant had already started the melt-down.

The program manager for DARPA, Gill Pratt, said that what DARPA realized is that current robots were only really designed to make observations, but couldn’t do specific tasks that were needed in this situation. Pratt said that what they really needed was for the robots to enter and shut off valves in the reactor building. Having no ability to shut off Fukushima’s hydrogen valves, the gas built up until a massive explosion ensued.

The U.S. Military’s latest DARPA challenge was designed to find future robotics and technology solutions that will help man in situations where the danger is too large for a mortal human. Two days of competitions this weekend pitted robots against obstacles that were designed to mimic situations that may be found following a disaster such as the Fukushima melt-down.

The competition had a total of eight challenges that tested the robot’s operator control mechanisms, perception, dexterity, manipulation and mobility. Some of the tasks involved climbing walls and ladders to driving cars.

The Japanese team, SHAFT Inc., took the top spot by scoring a total of 27 of 32 possible points. Florida Institute for Human Machine Cognition, or IHMC Robotics, advanced to the finals by coming in second. Carnegie-Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center finished third, and fourth place went to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

The U.S. Military-run DARPA competition in Florida this weekend divided the challengers in half with the top 8 highest scores sharing in $1 million dollars. This year’s prize money will be going to keep their teams funded until the DARPA finals in late 2014. Out of the 8 robot finalists chosen to compete from this weekend, one single winner will be chosen to take home a final purse of $2 million next year.

By Brent Matsalla

Brisbane Times
Ocala Star Banner
Boston Globe

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