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DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials Complete

December 22, 2013

The robot from SCHAFT attaches a hose to a standpipe in Friday’s competition. [Image: IEEE Spectrum]

This weekend saw the 2013 Trials of the DARPA Robotics Challenge. Sixteen robots gathered at the Homestead Miami Speedway in Florida to compete at eight different tasks, ranging from navigating rubble, to manipulating hoses and valves, to navigating various kinds of doors.

The dominant robot turned out to be the entry from SCHAFT Inc., a Japanese startup that was recently acquired by Google.  Those new capacitor-powered, water-cooled actuators apparently served the robot well as it got the top score in four out of eight events (Terrain, Ladder, Debris, and Hose), and a total score of 27 (out of a possible 32) points.

The second highest score of 20 points was attained by the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition, using one of the Atlas robots made by Boston Dynamics (also recently acquired by Google).  This robot was especially adept at the Door and Wall tasks.

Commentators on the scene expressed surprise at how well the robots performed overall.  The feeling is reminiscent of the second DARPA Grand Challenge, when suddenly autonomous cars no longer seemed the stuff of science fiction.  We’re at the same point now with humanoid robotics — it surely won’t be long before Google (who seems to own all the top contenders) and others have full-sized humanoid robots that are actually useful, and we will look back on this weekend’s competition as the primary turning point.

However, this is only the beginning.  The top eight teams receive further funding from DARPA to refine their machines, and we can expect those, plus some privately-funded competitors, to return for the Robotics Finals in 2014, where one bot will walk into the pages history with a $2M prize.  Place your bets — and for now, SCHAFT Inc. is certainly the robot to beat.

[Sources: IEEE Spectrum, DARPA, and see also NY Times]

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