Robot wars – and it’s a good thing

Later this year (5 and 6 June to be precise), the final stage of the world’s most important robotics competition takes place in California. The DARPA Robotics Challenge (see details here) will see 11 robots compete for the toughest prize in robotics and robot software. This year, they have to demonstrate ability to scramble over rubble, climb ladders, break down walls and clear debris to navigate a simulated disaster zone.

Some of the world’s most advanced technology will be on show: robotic limbs that can turn a water valve and robots that can climb ladders. There are eight preset challenges, including traversing uneven ground, getting into and driving a rescue vehicle, breaking down a wall and shutting off valves. It is the breeding ground for the machines of our future, because many of the skills that a robot needs in a disaster zone are the same ones they will use when working as cleaners and labourers in homes, offices and factories.

The idea behind DARPA’s two-year challenge has been to create robots that could have helped control the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. Unlike humans, of course, robots can safely enter areas with high radiation levels.

Previous DARPA challenges have driven huge technological progress. The most well known example is the self-driving car, which emerged from a similar multi-year process called the Urban Challenge. The cars entered into that challenge moved quickly from cars with jerky navigation of a simple course to smooth driving at speed through a much more complex environment. The same level of progress is expected for the robots in this year’s challenge. Even the winning robot at last year’s challenge, designed by Schaft of Japan, moved slowly, especially on the ladder task where it would take minutes between each step.

DARPA are confident that June’s event will see robots with smoother, speedier movement and a readiness for the real world that we have never seen before. Bring on the robot wars. Bring on better robots.

DARPA Robot Challenge

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