Redemption, tech advances -- and $2M prize -- drive DARPA robotics finalists (video)

Team JPL's robot

Team JPL's Robosimian robot.

Credit: Sharon Gaudin/Computerworld

'We’re trying to develop technologies that will save the world,' says one participant

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POMONA, Calif. -- The leader of one of the 24 teams competing in this week's finals of the DARPA Robotics Challenge didn't think he'd be here.

Actually, he didn't really want to be here.

Until six months ago, Paul Oh, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, had no intention, or interest, in competing in the DARPA challenge that is bringing in two dozen teams from around the world to see who has built the best robot for in a search-and-rescue mission.

After a disappointing showing as the team leader with Drexel University in the December 2013 robotics challenge trials, Oh had moved on to UNLV and was looking forward to sitting in the stands and watching other teams compete. Then DARPA called and asked him to get back in the game.

Now, for Oh, it's all about redemption.

"DARPA reached out to me and I said, 'Why would I? Why relive this?'" Oh said. "I have mixed feelings about doing this again, but I do want redemption. And if they can take a little piece of something we developed and put that to use for disaster response, we'll have done our job."

Paul Oh Sharon Gaudin

Paul Oh, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

For more than two years, teams from the likes of NASA, Carnegie Mellon University, Virginia Tech, Lockheed Martin and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, have been building robots - some two-footed, some four-footed - to take on this challenge.

The winner, to be announced Saturday afternoon, will go home with a $2 million prize. The runner up gets $1 million, with the team in third place taking $500,000.

That's a lot of money to fund continued research, but many of these researchers are simply looking to push themselves and robotics technology.

DARPA, of course, is looking to advance robotics and autonomous software to the point that during a disaster, machines could go into dangerous areas and buildings on the verge of collapse to turn off systems, find victims and investigate damage. The idea is to send robots where it's too dangerous for humans to go.

Gearing up for the finals

On Thursday, the teams gathered at the Fairplex here to take their first run at the course, which combines eight different tasks - like driving a car, climbing stairs, turning a valve and navigating a debris pile -- in one simulated disaster scenario.

The robots will take their first official run at the course on Friday and make a second attempt on Saturday. Judges will score the teams on the number of tasks completed, along with the amount of time it took them to finish the course. (The robots will only have one hour to complete the tasks, along with a surprise task they haven't been able to prepare for.)

DARPA challenge course Sharon Gaudin

The DARPA challenge course, where robots will have one hour to complete a series of tasks.

DARPA will take the top score from each team from the two days.

For many of these roboticists, more than two years of work all comes down to two one-hour challenges.

Matt DeDonato, team leader from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) team, said his crew has easily spent thousands of hours, if not tens of thousands of hours, working on their robot, affectionately named Warner.

"I think at this point, we've done the best that we can," said DeDonato. "It's about the work we put in. The competition doesn't matter as much. Seeing these amazing robots isn't something you see every day."

A broken robot

Dennis Hong, team leader and a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UCLA, is also excited to see the different robots competing at the finals.

On Thursday night, though, he wasn't spending time checking out the competition. He was too busy trying to fix serious damage to his robot.

During UCLA's practice run on Thursday, the humanoid robot was about to get out of the car after driving onto the course when the wind slammed the car's door shut, breaking the robot's shoulder. The motor in the shoulder broke, while metal brackets in the joint were warped.

Dennis Hong Sharon Gaudin

Dennis Hong, team leader and a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UCLA.

If Hong's team can't repair the shoulder, they'll have to use a backup robot that they don't have as much confidence in.

Hong didn't appear too stressed about the situation. Working under pressure is something the teams have gotten used to.

"This is the top of the top -- the cream of the crop," he said. "In the future, when someone speaks at a conference or develops new technology, it will be by people in this building. Winning here doesn't mean you're the best. There's going to be a lot of luck to it."

WPI's DeDonato knows what it's like to work with a handicapped robot. Earlier this year, WPI's 7-foot-tall, Boston Dynamics-built humanoid robot had a broken arm. They couldn't stop preparing for the finals while they waited for it to be fixed.

That means they simply learned how to run through most of their tasks with one arm, leading DeDonato to joke that the robot can now get through much of the course with one hand tied behind its back.

On Thursday, the WPI team had both robotic arms working, though engineers were trying to fix a hand that broke before their practice run.

WPI's robot Sharon Gaudin

WPI's robot, better known as Warner.

Luck plays a role

There's a lot of luck involved in doing well at the competition, according to UNLV's Oh, but it's also about learning to overcome broken parts and problems on the course -- because that's what robots actually working in a disaster area will face.

"You can't always predict what will happen," he said. "How can we build a platform so problems aren't catastrophic?"

To that end, most of the team leaders say they're working together more than they're competing. Of course, they'd all like to win the $2 million top prize. But they're also looking to advance the technology.

"It's a competition, but we're not really fighting against each other," said Hong, who noted that teams have been trading information and assistance in the run up to the final challenges. "We're trying to develop technologies that will save the world. If it can save even one person's life, we will have done our mission."

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