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Robot 'Olympics' Test Machines On Human Skills

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Under throbbing loudspeakers at a NASCAR track south of Miami, vaguely humanoid robots with two legs, four legs and tank treads take up garages that normally house race cars.

The robots, along with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lockheed Martin, NASA and 13 other teams from around the world, are in Homestead, Fla., for the robot Olympics on Friday and Saturday.

OK, it's not really a sanctioned Olympics event, but the DARPA Robotics Challenge is a world-class competition sponsored by the U.S. Defense Department's research agency, DARPA, with $2 million for the winning team. Teams that make it through the first round will receive $1 million in additional funding.

The eight tasks don't sound Olympian — opening a door, climbing a ladder, turning a valve, driving a vehicle, but they are for robots. If a robot can do these tasks, it could help humans by playing key roles in disaster relief.

The 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, inspired the contest, says Gill Pratt, a program manager at the DARPA Defense Sciences Office. As hydrogen gas built up in the reactors, people sent in to open valves couldn't do it because the radiation was too high. If robots could have opened the valves, the incident might not have been as disastrous.

Tony Stentz, director of the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University, is also intrigued by the idea of using robots for disaster response. His answer is a red, humanlike robot called CHIMP.

"You could put a robot like CHIMP in an environment where there's a risk of fire or an explosion or a toxic gas leak," Stentz says. "It could do work rather than subjecting a person to that risk."

Instead of feet, CHIMP moves on tracks that look like tank treads. It does well on tasks involving manipulation — like opening a door — but Stentz says CHIMP's not so good on mobility tasks, like driving a vehicle or moving over rough terrain. Climbing a ladder is "certainly not a strength."

On the speedway track Friday morning, one of the two robots from NASA was having problems too. Nic Radford with NASA's Johnson Space Center team says his group is working through "network problems." The team just started building its robot in October and had to contend with a government shutdown and furloughs from sequestration.

By Friday afternoon, clearly one of the teams to watch was Schaft, a group from Japan that was leading all competitors. The Schaft team wasn't giving interviews, but nearby, Brett Kennedy, group supervisor with NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, was happy to talk. Its robot, RoboSimian, is inspired by our primate cousins. RoboSimian's four limbs make it more stable than bipedal robots.

"We don't have arms and legs; we have limbs," Kennedy says. "Each one of those limbs is capable of both mobility and manipulation. Each one of those limbs will ultimately have a hand at the end of it."

Computer scientists and engineers here say it's a rare opportunity — the chance to see the leaders in robotics bringing their work out into the field. But although everyone wants to win the $2 million prize and bragging rights to the world's top robot, Kennedy says it's pretty collegial.

"Most of us are much more concerned with pushing robotics forward than we are with beating the other guy," Kennedy says. "That's not really the point."

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