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DARPA’s Robotic Answer to Fukushima

Of course, our favorite fictional robot is the ED-209 from the original RoboCop (1987). It’s a slightly glitchy death machine that cannot be turned off reliably and has considerable difficulty managing stairs. It’s also one of the last great uses of stop motion animation before the arrival of CGI, but that’s another discussion.

I was reminded of the ED-209 by this bit from a report from the DARPA Robotics Challenge:

Before the games began, a DARPA representative said something pretty funny: He expected most or all of the robots to fall down at some point. And he was right.

Which is only reinforced by the rules of contest:

The rules are simple — each humanoid robot has one hour to score eight points for various tasks, which include driving a car, opening a door, pulling a lever and climbing some stairs.

Climbing some stairs! The reverse of what foiled ED.

Anyway, the DARPA challenge was motivated by the 2011 nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi.

"Robots weren't able to help in the Fukushima nuclear disaster," says Arati Prabahakar, the head of DARPA.

This isn’t exactly true. Here’s a Popular Mechanics story about three such robots. But let’s assume Prabahakar means a robot able to do the kinds of things the challenge means to test, which has to do with quick disaster recovery. The Fukushima robots were used later on.

Interestingly, the teams did not create the physical robots. Most entries used Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot as their hardware base. What they did do is devise the sensors and software to run everything.

The winner of the challenge (and a cool $2 million):

By the end of the day Saturday, the second and last full day of the finals of a three-year-long search for a champion, Team KAIST, from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, had claimed the $2 million top prize and permanent rights to brag that it had bested worthy competitors from august institutions like Carnegie Mellon University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and others across the world.

Congratulations to the Koreans. If I understand correctly, Team KAIST did not use the Atlas robot, but a home-grown variety called the Hubo. Both types of robot are bi-pedal. American teams took silver and bronze, but the goal here was really to advance the art and science of robotics to better ensure public safety. Whether that’s at a nuclear plant or in other applications, it’s a worthy international undertaking.


Human acceptance of our future inhuman overlords still has a ways to go: the most popular YouTube video of the event was a compilation of robots falling over (just as the DARPA official predicted would happen). Go figure: perhaps director Paul Verhoeven demonstrated a certain prescience in RoboCop.


jim said…
That's kind of unfair to most of them who are more victims of a cold dead systems failure than actual clumsiness which IS funny!

James Greenidge
Queens NY

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