American Pharoah wins Triple Crown, KAIST wins DARPA Robotics Challenge

June 7, 2015

American Pharoah’s winning of the Triple Crown made headlines this weekend, but another competition at the other side of the country is poised to spur on practical and potentially lifesaving application. Team KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) won the DARPA Robotics Challenge, held June 5-6 in Pomona, CA, and will take home the $2 million prize.

The competition was intended to speed the development of robots that could assist humans during natural and manmade disasters. The competition was prompted at least in part by the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan, in 2011.

Competing robots had to complete eight tasks within 60 minutes. KAIST’s DRC-HUBO (for HUmanoid roBOt) completed the tasks in 44 minutes and 28 seconds. Team IHMC Robotics from the Institute of Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola, FL, and Team TARTAN Rescue from the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University placed second and third, receiving $1 million, and $500,000 respectively.

Team KAIST reports that its effort was led by Professor Jun-Ho Oh of the Mechanical Engineering Department at the KAIST and researchers from Rainbow Co., the university’s spin-off company that builds robots.

Competing robots had to perform tasks such as driving a vehicle, opening doors, drilling holes, and walking up stairs and over uneven ground. VentureBeat reports that HUBO is 5-ft. 9-in. tall and weighs in at 176 lbs. John Markoff in the New York Times writes that some of the robots weighed more than 400 lbs., adding that “…the robots seems like an array of electronic and hydraulic contraptions that, in some cases, walked in a lumbering fashion on two or four legs and, in other cases, rolled on tracks or wheels.”

According to Markoff, “Reporters were once again left grasping for appropriate metaphors to describe the slow-motion calisthenics performed by the menagerie of battery-powered machines. Most agreed that ‘like watching grass grow’ was no longer the best description, and Gill Pratt, the DARPA official in charge of the competition, suggested that it had risen to the level of ‘watching a golf match.’”

DARPA program manager Gill Pratt congratulated all 23 participating teams and thanked them for helping to open a new era of partnership between robots and humans.

“These robots are big and made of lots of metal and you might assume people seeing them would be filled with fear and anxiety,” Pratt said. “But we heard groans of sympathy when those robots fell. And what did people do every time a robot scored a point? They cheered! It’s an extraordinary thing, and I think this is one of the biggest lessons from DRC—the potential for robots not only to perform technical tasks for us, but to help connect people to one another.”

“This is the end of the DARPA Robotics Challenge but only the beginning of a future in which robots can work alongside people to reduce the toll of disasters,” said DARPA director Arati Prabhakar. “I am so proud of all the teams that participated and know that the community that the DRC has helped to catalyze will do great things in the years ahead.”

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