Simple Tasks, Heavy Burdens: Robot Engineers Compete To 'Save Humanity'

Dec 23, 2013

THOR OP competes in the terrain task.
Credit Maria Murriel / WLRN

The Pentagon hosted a robotics competition at the Homestead Miami Speedway over the weekend. It’s being called the "Robot Olympics."

Teams from all over the world came to prove their robots’ agility at the Robotics Challenge trials. The teams whose robots earn the top scores would get a shot at winning $2 million in the finals next year.

But the games are about much more than the cash:

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the research and development wing of the Pentagon.

DARPA's Robotics Challenge was inspired by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown in Japan, during which, engineers say, robots that could handle radiation could have helped to prevent part of the catastrophe. So at the trials in Homestead, bipedal, rolling and crawling bots were tested on simple tasks that could aid in disaster relief: picking up bits of wood, walking over cinder blocks, opening a door.

With every task the robots attempt, there's $3 million at stake. DARPA is budgeted to give the top eight finalists $1 million in funding for further development, and the winner of next year's finals will get a $2 million prize.

Credit Maria Murriel / WLRN

Virginia Tech engineers were part of the team that brought THOR OP, a bipedal machine that competed in a terrain task. The robot took roughly 10 minutes to walk about four feet on an inclined surface, before stopping to try to step over some cinder blocks.

"What we're trying to do here is develop new technology that will one day save people's lives," Virginia Tech's Dennis Hong says.

It might take a while for the machines to be useful in disaster relief. The robots at the challenge still move slowly. But these are their first steps.

"I see these robots as a 1-year-old toddler," Hong says.

In the audience, 8-year-old Humbertico Carralero is ready for the machines to grow up. He and his parents are Cuban immigrants now living in Miami. He’s really into robots:

"I love them because I think a lot about the future and how humanity is going to improve," he says. "Like when cars fly and drive themselves or something like that."

Humbertico may not have to wait that long. On the other side of the speedway, Hong's team is duct-taping THOR OP into an ATV -- the sort of vehicle you might see first-responders using in a crisis. THOR grips the steering wheel and, at the command of a human at a computer in the garage, gingerly drives forward into an obstacle course.

It takes the robot nearly 30 minutes to zig-zag half a block — but, one of the engineers points out, this is a machine. And it's driving a machine.

Participants of the DARPA Robotics Challenge were more human-like than you might think. Watch some human-robot interaction in the video below.