This article titled “Try, Robot: Darpa contest sends new humanoids into ‘nuclear reactor'” was written by Sam Thielman in Pomona, California, for theguardian.com on Saturday 6th June 2015 15.02 UTC
Robots are terrible drivers.
The one that had just navigated a smooth stretch of road a few hundred feet long had taken 15 minutes to do so, and it didn’t really fit behind the wheel of the little red chrome four-wheeler, a sort of all-terrain golf cart called a Polaris Ranger. Instead, the robot had wedged itself across two seats and had to be winched out of the car with a chain hanging from a pulley system at the top of a big rolling frame. It had also had a hard time with the turns.
“Come on!” yelled an Italian woman sitting in her team’s section of the stadium. “Go, Walk-Man!”
A team of concerned-looking European engineers in mod blue hard hats were chatting and staring worriedly at Walk-Man, a hulking metal thing with bright LED lights on either side of its head, as it stood at the threshold of a fake nuclear reactor. A moment earlier, there had been raucous cheering throughout the Fairplex, formerly the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, in Pomona, California, for Walk-Man had done the nearly impossible: he had opened a door.
Now, Walk-Man looked tentative, as though having second thoughts about whether or not to step over the threshold.
On Friday and Saturday, the Darpa Robotics Challenge – the “Robolympics”, unofficially, according to a couple of engineers laughing next to the Trac Labs garage, where a Boston Dynamics Atlas humanoid dangled from a scaffold – completes its final competition, with 25 teams of engineers and scientists giving orders to huge machines trundling across a landscape designed to simulate the impassible environment that greeted aid workers after the Fukushima Daiichi reactor in Japan melted down multiple times in 2011.
Engineers tried to help, but no robots could navigate the hazardous terrain and disaster ensued, rendering a huge area around the plant uninhabitable after toxic steam exploded into the skies. The radioactive leftovers are still emitting a million watts of heat.
If a Darpa contestant is able to navigate the terrain successfully, and in a short amount of time (each team has an hour to run the course) it will become the richest robot in town: first prize is m, second prize is m, and third gets 0,000.
The public event is a cross between the Consumer Electronics Show and an episode of Mythbusters. Inside the Fairplex, the stands were filled on Friday with people cheering for their favorite androids. Outside was a big expo with kids running around playing with (or staring terrified at) all kinds of robots: some dancing, some playing music, some swimming in a giant tank where they can be piloted with a video game controller. One company, Ekso, makes robotic trousers that make it easier to carry a backpack.
The purpose of the main event, however, is deadly serious.
“The idea, inspired by Fukushima, is to come up with a simulation of a disaster that is like [that],” said Dr Gill Pratt, the avuncular, eloquent director of the Tactical Technology Office (TTO) program at Darpa that oversees the project.
Darpa is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the arm of the US Defense Department that is responsible in large part for the creation of the computer network, Arpanet, that became the internet.
“The teams will not have any human help for the robots themselves, and the key element, again, is between the human controllers and the robot is a very degraded communication link,” Pratt explained.
From the stands in front of Walk-Man, communication appeared to degrade earlier than scheduled. The robot on the track next to Walk-Man, HRP-2, stood at the same phase in its trial, in front of its own door. Something went wrong, however, and it collapsed. Simultaneously, Walk-Man’s legs folded and the blue lights on either side of its head went out. It looked exactly like Walk-Man had fainted.
This was a Wi-Fi problem, explained Darwin Caldwell, a Northern Irish engineer working on Walk-Man out of its home base, the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT). HRP-2’s kill switch had somehow killed Walk-Man too.
Caldwell, who lives in Manchester and commutes to Genoa, where the IIT and Walk-Man live, was annoyed about the snafu, though not with his competitors – despite the competition, engineers tend to lend each other tools and advice, and to blame bureaucracy for any mistakes.
Caldwell’s project, which cost some 0,000 in parts alone, is primarily funded by the European Union. The Walk-Man project has been going on for four years, with goals similar to Darpa’s stated intentions of developing disaster-relief androids – though the robot itself is one of the youngest in the competition, having been around for only four months.
“Particularly when you need to improvise, the environment you’re going into is a human environment, and a humanoid robot is designed to take on a human environment and we can adapt to it like humans,” Caldwell said.
“If you’ve got a quadruped robot, or a robot with wheels, it’s not really designed for that environment, so it might be able to adapt. But we know humans can go in there. We know humans can do that. That’s one thing we’re certain of.”
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Tags: Article, California, Features, Robots, Sam Thielman, Technology, US military, US news, World news
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