On the first day of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Robotic Challenge Finals here yesterday, one human-robot team had a perfect score and many others got high scores on what event organizers determined to be the hardest course any robot has ever tackled.
This is year three of the robotic effort and the last competition of the DRC, created to drive the development of robots capable of saving lives in the first hours and days of a disaster like 9-11 or the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant meltdown in Japan.
"The earthquake in Nepal, the cruise ship [that sank] in China — these remind us that disasters are an all-too-frequent fact of life," DRC Program Manager Gill Pratt told reporters yesterday.
"The challenge for the DRC teams is to enable human beings and robots to work together as partners, with each doing what they’re best at, despite terribly degraded communications," he added.
The competitive course consists of eight tasks – one of them a surprise to the teams – and the teams get one point for each task completed.
The robots drive a utility vehicle, get out of the vehicle and open a door, find and close a valve, use a tool to cut through a wall, do the surprise task, clear debris or negotiate rough terrain, and climb a set of stairs to finish.
The robots have one hour to finish the course, and communications between the operators and the robots are more and more degraded as time passes, as they are in a disaster. The robots carry their own power supply, and if they fall down have to get up by themselves.
The first prize is $2 million, the second is $1 million, and the third is $500,000.
Yesterday, a robot called CHIMP — Carnegie Mellon University highly intelligent mobile platform – was the only one who had a perfect unofficial score of 8.
CHIMP’s team, Tartan Rescue, is from Carnegie Mellon University and the National Robotics Engineering Center in Pittsburgh, Pa. They were high scorers, too, at the 2013 DRC that took place at Homestead, Fla.
According to the team’s description, "CHIMP’s three-fingered grippers and custom-engineered drive joints give it the ability to grasp and manipulate objects with humanlike adaptability and dexterity. Its full-body control supports high-strength maneuvers and manipulation tasks."
"Today was amazing," Pratt said yesterday at the day 1 wrap-up briefing, adding that the DARPA staff’s greatest concern was that the contest would be too easy or too hard.
"It takes a tremendous amount of care from everyone on the staff here to make sure the contest is fair, but also we have to do a little bit of forecasting to figure out whether we made it to easy or too hard," Pratt added. "I think we got it just right."
As of this morning, for the top performers, a single robot had scored 8 points, six other robots scored 7 points, one robot scored 6 and one scored 5 points.
The public events are taking place here at the Fairplex, formerly known as the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, and yesterday spectators got into the spirit of the competition, yelling and clapping after robots completed each task, screaming "one" each time a robot earned a point, and groaning sympathetically when a robot missed a point or fell down.
Pratt said the teams were conservative on day 1, afraid that pushing the robots could cause them to fall or be damaged.
Nothing to Lose
But today, the second and final day, "they have nothing to lose so they may as well try as hard as they can," Pratt added.
"I expect that [today] the teams will try harder and, particularly the ones near the top, will be very aggressive and we’ll probably see even shorter times and more points scored," he said.
During the many hours of rehearsal this week, Pratt said he had two favorite moments. The first was Thursday when he watched the [NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory] robot getting itself out of the utility vehicle.
JPL’s robot is called RoboSimian, a simian-inspired limbed robot that JPL says "will use its four general-purpose limbs and hands, capable of mobility and manipulation, to achieve passively stable stances, create multi-point anchored connections to supports … and brace itself during forceful manipulation operations."
So far, RoboSimian has 7 points here in unofficial scoring and had a high score at DRC 2013.
Pratt said he thought the particular way that the team had the robot egress from the vehicle, "and watching this spider-like thing go from being inside this little car, trying to drive, to getting out of it in this dance, was a very elegant and beautiful thing to see."
The second noteworthy moment for Pratt, near the end of day 1, "was watching the Tartan Rescue team score all 8 points and then get on the top of the stairs. I thought that was an extraordinary thing and it was just in the nick of time. They had 4 minutes and 45 seconds left," he said.
The DRC program manager added, "I’m very proud of how we’ve done and I think the teams that are up there in the top 6 [or] 8 are really very strong."
Path to the Future
Arati Prabhakar, DARPA director, incited opening ceremony excitement by saying, "Good luck and let the best robot win!"
"At DARPA, we come to work every single day to change what’s possible," Prabhakar said at the ceremony. "That’s our job. We change what’s possible so that we can take these huge strides forward in our national security capabilities."
Later, during a DoD News interview, she described how robots have historically operated only in constrained environments doing very specific tasks.
"Tomorrow," she added, "we’re going to live in a world where there’s a path to a future where robots actually can work with us and do the hard work that’s involved in disaster relief to save lives, to mitigate those kinds of disasters."