Ready the robots! DARPA sets finals for robotics challenge

Finals will have robots taking on a disaster scenario with tools, ladders

Scientists from at least 11 robotics teams have less than a year to prepare to compete in the DARPA robotics challenge finals.

DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense, announced that the final stage of its three-phase challenge will be held June 5 and 6, 2015, in Pomona, Calif.

The 11 teams will compete for a $2 million prize. DARPA has stated that it expects more teams to participate.

The three-part challenge is intended to advance autonomous robots to the point that they can become viable members of search and rescue teams during natural and man-made disasters. Scientists expect that one day robots will largely act on their own to enter damaged buildings, find human victims, turn off gas pipes and put out fires.

Brett Kennedy, principal investigator for the RoboSimian, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab entry in the DARPA Robotics Challenge during the second phase of the contest in December 2013, shows off the robot before it takes on its first task. (Photo: Sharon Gaudin/Computerworld).

The first part of the challenge was a simulation held in 2013. The second phase, which was held in December in Florida, involved 16 teams competing to see which could build the best software to enable their robot to work through a series of tasks, including autonomously walking, using human tools, climbing a ladder and driving a car.

The 11 finalists include teams from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, MIT, Virginia Tech and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Team Schaft, which finished in first place in the second phase of the challenge, was expected to be a tough challenger for the finals. However, Team Schaft withdrew from the finals.

Google, which owns Team Schaft and the hardware and software its roboticists built, pulled out so it could focus on commercial products. Google has bought at least eight robotics companies in the past year and appears to be focused on creating related hardware and software.

The finals are expected to be considerably more difficult than the second phase of the challenge, which had robots taking on one task at a time.

During the finals, the robotics teams will face an overall disaster situation, such as a fire or gas leak, DARPA said. The robots will be given a set of tools and a series of ladders, doors, cars and valves that they can use to handle the situation.

As an added layer of difficulty, the robots will not be connected to power cords or wired communications or tethers. If a robot falls, it will have to get back up without human assistance.

This article, Ready the robots! DARPA sets finals for robotics challenge, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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