Robots face off in DARPA challenge

Over the weekend of 5 to 7 June 25 teams from around the world will be pitting their autonomous robots against one another in a series of disaster-related tasks to win $3.5million worth of prizes. The DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Finals will be held at Pomona, California.

In the wake of the 2011 tsunami in Japan, it was deemed that the Fukushima power plant could have been prevented from exploding had a humanoid robot been utilised. This inspired DARPA, the research arm of the US Department of Defence, to start the competition in 2012.

The robots will take part in one of four disaster courses, during which they will have one hour to perform eight tasks. The tasks include, driving a car, opening and walking through a door, cutting a hole in a wall, climbing up steps, opening a valve, crossing debris-filled terrain and a mystery event that will only be disclosed to the teams on the opening day. Points will be awarded to the teams for each task they succeed in.

The teams will not be allowed to physically help the robots, nor will the robots have any safety lines to help them from toppling over. The robots will have to complete the task being powered by battery, rather than being connected to a power chord and the wireless connection to the robot itself will not be constant, making the robots almost completely autonomous.

Dr Gill Pratt, DARPA programme manager, said: "DARPA's role is to spur innovation. And we do it by focused, short term efforts. We pick things that are not impossible, but also not very low risk. So we take very high risk gambles, and those risks have tremendous payoffs. So if we're successful it means that these robots are actually going to be able to make a difference. In particular, in disaster scenarios making society more resilient."