This stuff is really hard.
For the two dozen teams that have come to California this week to compete in the finals of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, just being here isn’t anywhere near enough. But winning the $2 million top prize for getting their robot through the full disaster scene simulation course and completing all the required tasks within an hour is a very serious accomplishment.
A final winner won’t be crowned until tomorrow evening, but already one of the 24 teams that have been working for three years to develop a human/robot team capable of assisting in disaster relief (the Challenge was inspired by failed attempts to use robots at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami) has separated itself from the pack.
According to Scott Lavalley, the mechanical lead at Boston Dynamics who was instrumental in designing the Atlas robot platform that seven teams here are using, the hardware is all the same. What sets the teams apart in the competition is their ability to create the best control software. “We delivered the hardware,” Lavalley said. “It’s up to them to write the software and navigate it through the course.”
Early in the day, Lavalley told me he thought three or four of the teams in the full field would likely rise above the rest. And of them, Team IHMC Robotics, run by the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition, is “the Atlas team to watch [because of] their communications and [because] they’ve got a lot of history with bipedal locomotion.”
I’m here to tell you: Lavalley was totally right.
Part of the second group of teams competing this morning, Team IHMC’s robot, named Running Man, quickly became a Robotics Challenge superstar.
Even as the entrants from the University of Pisa (Walk-Man) and the University of Tokyo (HRP-2) got the crowd excited by being the first to have their robots autonomously drive their way down a dirt track in a Polaris off-road vehicle, Running Man soon stole the show.
As hundreds of people–myself included–were on one side of the Fairplex grandstand watching Walk-Man and HRP-2, there was a huge cheer on the other side: Running Man had driven its Polaris to the end of the track and was already pulling itself out of the car.
Hardly alone, I realized something exciting was happening, and scurried over to watch. As I got there, Running Man, a tall robot that looks like it’s wearing an exoskeleton, and which is studded with logos for Amazon and Team IHMC, was gingerly stepping onto the ground. Another big cheer erupted from the crowd.
By driving the course, and getting out of the Polaris, Running Man earned two points. Now it was slowly walking toward the door of the open-walled model room where it would have to complete a series of additional tasks.
It put its “hand” on the door, waited a few moments, pushed it open, and walked through. Already, Running Man had three points. No one in the first round had scored a single point at this point.
Now, Team IHMC had to contend with dramatically limited communications, as per the rules. That meant that instead of being able to continuously see what the robot was seeing, and being able to control it from the team “garage,” the IHMC folks had to count on the robot being able to figure out much of what it was doing on its own.
The next task was to turn the red wheel that would open a large valve. Boom. Four points. And more than points, Running Man had by now scored the attention of nearly everyone in the grandstand, who either were crowded into areas where they could see with their own eyes, or who were watching its progress on Jumbotrons mounted above the competition.
Cool and collected, the robot turned its attention to a set of drills. It had to use one to saw a hole in a piece of half-inch-thick drywall without hitting the outer frame. It knocked over one of the drills, then successfully grabbed a second and started cutting. It sawed and sawed, and after a few minutes, a big hole opened up as the drywall fell away. The crowd roared, and “+1 point” flashed on the Jumbotron. Running Man now had five points.
Most of the course is pre-set, but Running Man’s next task was the one its team hadn’t been able to predict ahead of time. During practices yesterday, the robots had had to figure out how to push an off-switch button. Today, they had to pull down a lever. A lever which, by the way, was no match for Running Man. Six points.
Just 20 minutes earlier, with little action on the courses as several of the robotics teams fiddled with their machines, the grandstand had been quiet. Now it was electric, and as Running Man approached its next task, walking across several feet of rubble, you could feel the crowd getting ready to erupt.
But even Running Man proved fallible. It made its way about halfway across the rubble before tumbling to the ground. Faced with a choice of letting the robot try to right itself or take a 10-minute penalty and get it standing again manually, Team IHMC chose the latter, rushing in with a special hoist, and lifting their machine off the ground.
The robot also had to return behind the door and make its way through again, though it didn’t have to complete the valve, hole-cutting, or lever tasks again.
Ten minutes later, Running Man was still far ahead of every other team, but time was running out. It returned to the rubble field. This time it was no problem. It stepped carefully across the broken concrete and then onto solid ground. Another huge cheer greeted Running Man’s seventh point.
There was one final task: climbing to a platform at the top of four steps. “Three minutes remaining,” I heard someone say on a walkie-talkie. It was nail-biting time.
Running Man walked up to the first step, and seemed to bow, almost as if to say, “I’m not worthy.”
And sadly, Running Man was right. It went up one step, and suddenly fell backwards, ass over teakettle.
That was it. There wasn’t enough time to get it going again. Running Man could not complete the course. But the crowd was on its feet, celebrating Running Man’s seven points. No one else had more than three.
There are a lot of robots still to run the course, and one or more may yet get eight points. But as of now, Running Man is the robot to beat.
And yeah, this stuff is really, really hard.