The Darpa Challenge

Maybe if we start training robots to save people’s lives now, some of them will collaborate with the post-Skynet human resistance later. That’s not the explicit purpose of the Darpa Robotics Challenge, but if it’s a side benefit, that’d be fine. What the DRC is supposed to do, though, is take the 25 finalists announced today, a group of robots from around the world whittled down over the past three years, and put them through a grueling series of disaster rescue tests. These bots will have to do a lot more than vacuum a floor or pretend to be a loving pet. They’ll have to traverse obstacles, open doors, and even drive a vehicle—all mostly autonomously. The winner gets $2 million (the team of roboticists, not the robot).

Meanwhile, Darpa getting all these robots and their nominal masters together already represents something unprecedented. “It’s the biggest collection of robots in one place that’s ever happened,” says Jonathan Hurst, a roboticist at Oregon State University. “Some people are calling it ‘Robo-Woodstock.’” (Watch out for the brown battery acid.) Hurst specializes in legged locomotion; his lab designed the bipedal ATRIAS robot for the challenge.

The goal of the competition is to push forward autonomous technologies that will help in disaster recovery and search-and-rescue operations, using robots to enter places or assess situations too dangerous for humans. “We’re trying to make this contest more authentic to what a real disaster would be,” said DRC program manager Gill Pratt in a press conference announcing the finalists. Some of the entrants have gone through similar trials already—Boston Dynamics has already tested its bipedal Atlas like this, and in fact several of the finalists used Atlas as a shell for their own hardware. As long as none of those tasks involve crunching human skulls under alloy feet, we’re good.

See the gallery above to learn more about some of the finalists; the competition begins in June.

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