” POMONA, CALIFORNIA – Robots from six countries, including the United States, Japan and South Korea, went diode-to-diode Friday in a disaster-response challenge inspired by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown.
The winner of the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), to be announced Saturday after a two-day competition in California, will take home $2 million. The runner-up will get $1 million, and $500,000 will go to the team in third place.
They will also win kudos for triumphing after a three-year robotics contest organized by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which commissions advanced research for the U.S. Defense Department.
“The U.S. military has an implicit mission to respond to humanitarian disaster relief. But in order to do so, you need the tools to effectively respond,” said DARPA official Brad Tousley. “In many cases, you’d like to send robots into the places that it’s very dangerous for humans to go into,” he said, citing nuclear reactor disasters and also earthquakes and epidemics like Ebola.
In all, 24 mostly human-shaped bots and their teams — 12 from the United States, five from Japan, three from South Korea, two from Germany and one each from Italy and Hong Kong — won through to the finals.
Over the two days, each robot has two chances to compete on an obstacle course comprising eight tasks, including driving, opening a door, opening a valve, punching through a wall and dealing with rubble and stairs.
The challenges facing them in Pomona, just east of Los Angeles, were designed specifically with Fukushima in mind.
After the March 11, 2011, mega-quake and tsunami, a team of plant workers set out to enter the darkened reactor buildings and manually vent accumulated hydrogen. They had to turn back due to radiation — and in the days that followed, hydrogen built up, fueling explosions that extensively damaged the facility, contaminating the environment and drastically worsening the crisis.
“If the Japanese had had advanced robotics systems that could have used tools that we use in everyday life … they might have prevented some of the damage from the subsequent hydrogen explosions,” said Tousley.
While the robotics teams competing in Pomona are focused on the tasks in hand, they also have their eyes on more than just winning the competition.
“Hong Kong is a financial center. … We hope we can inspire the people with more innovation, to be interested in engineering and technology,” said Robert Hung from Hong Kong University.
Maurice Fallon of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said that while robots could become crucial in disaster responses, “the applications outside of this domain are very wide. Eventually we hope that the technology that is being demonstrated here will be used in our daily lives, from home help to elderly care to agriculture and construction — there are many applications.”
But watching the competition in Pomona, it must be said that the technology can appear less than impressive. It takes most robots five minutes to open a door, while many of them give up on the task of getting out of a car.
JAXON, the robot from Team NEDO-JSK of the University of Tokyo, is not the only bot to take a tumble, in its case after failing to properly grasp a valve wheel. It had to be carried away on a stretcher.
They are not exactly Transformers yet.
“There is a long way to go,” admitted Tousley. “There’s fact and there’s fiction. There’s a lot of fiction out there that robots are much more capable than they really are.
“But part of DARPA’s job is to show the possible, and what we can start to do. And then, often, other organizations and other countries or other companies will invest more to bring it along. But it’s our job to start that process.” ”