South Korean team surges past rivals to win DARPA bot battle

24 teams from around the world showcased their disaster response robots over two days

WPI's robot
Sharon Gaudin

POMONA, Calif. -- South Korea's Team Kaist, which had been in sixth place after the first day of competition in the DARPA Robotics Challenge finals, maneuvered past its rivals on Saturday to win the two-and-a-half-year battle.

Team Kaist slipped past the other teams to claim the $2 million prize in what was a battle between some of the best roboticists from around the world. There were 24 teams all together.

The winning team is made up of engineers and programmers from Kaist, a South Korean research university formerly known as the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, along with researchers from the Rainbow Co., a spinoff of the university's research lab.

Team Kaist DARPA

Team Kaist, which won the DARPA Robotics Challenge.

Team Kaist, which operates a nearly six-foot-tall, 176-pound humanoid robot, finished all eight tasks in the course in just 44 minutes and 28 seconds.

The winning run was six minutes faster than the competition's runner up -- Team IHMC, from the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, which also earned eight points, came in second place and won $1 million. Team Tartan Rescue from Carnegie Mellon University was third, also with eight points, and won $500,000.

"It's a great moment," said In So Kweon, a Kaist team leader who worked on the robot's sensing abilities. "The most important thing is the humanoid robot's system is so well built. It has good balancing and can walk on its feet or roll on wheels. It was a brilliant mechanical idea."

The robot, which has two arms, is built to walk upright on two feet or kneel down and roll on wheels built into its knees.

IHMC robot Sharon Gaudin/Computerworld

After completing the drive test at the DARPA robotics finals, the IHMC robot opens a door and gets out.

All of the robotic teams had to take on a course that simulated a disaster scene, which challenged the robots with tasks like driving a car, opening a door, turning a valve, navigating debris and climbing stairs.

DARPA ran the challenge to encourage roboticists to work on hardware and software that will be needed one day for robots to work in natural and man-made disasters, entering dangerous areas, turning off systems, searching for victims and assessing damage.

The competition brought in teams from the likes of Carnegie Mellon University, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, MIT, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and Virginia Tech.

"The key thing about this technology is that it's not just that it's a cool robot...; the key thing is to be solving a problem in the human condition," Pam Melroy, deputy director of DARPA's tactical technology office, said. "Some of these robots, if there was a disaster tomorrow, we might be able to send them and they might be able to make a difference."

Melroy, who also is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and a former NASA astronaut, said she thinks highly capable robots could be deployed worldwide for disaster response within 10 to 15 years.

The finals for the robotics challenge took place on Friday and Saturday, with each of the 24 teams running through the course on both days; their best times and point totals were then used to decide the winner.

On Friday, the Carnegie Mellon team was the only one to get all eight points, making it the early leader. That team, though, ran into early trouble in its final run when the robot drove past its mark and into a barrier. That mistake slowed the robot, dubbed Chimp, enough to keep it from holding onto the top position.

Other teams has their own troubles on Saturday. JPL's four-legged Robosimian robot, which came in fifth place, was moving well through the course until it dropped a plug it was trying to move into a socket. It then stopped moving just as it got to the stairs, the last task on the course.

The robotics team from MIT had tough luck on both days. On Friday, its robot fell getting out of the car and broke an arm. Despite the damage, it completed the course (and won 7 points) in enough time to leave it in fourth place after the first day.

On Saturday, it looked like MIT's robot might be the only one that could overtake Team Kaist. But then the MIT robot fell again, dashing MIT's chances.

WPI's team also had some hard luck. In seventh place at the end of the day on Friday, its robot "Warner"had just started driving down the course when it came to a stop. A problem with the car derailed the robot's first attempt at the run.

The team had to push the car back off the course, switch the robot to another car, recalibrate and start over.

Once it got started again, Warner got its drill stuck in a wall and then dropped the tool. It finished the rest of the course but was unable to get the full eight points because of the drill problem.

"We were hoping for eight points and we had a good shot at it," said Mike Gennert, director of WPI's robotics engineering program. "It just wasn't meant to be."

WPI finished in seventh place at the end of the competition.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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