Robot Trials, from Bo Keely

December 23, 2013 |

 The robot gently helped another robot after it had blown over in this morning's offshore wind at Homestead, Florida. The spectators around me applauded at the first Robotic Challenge Trials. Seventeen teem robots are competing for $34 million dollars to be divvied in $2 million grants to the winning college and private teams in each division set up like an Olympics.

Stooping in a ring next to the Good Samaritan robot, another performed heart massage on what I thought was a human, but turned out to be a dummy. However, another robot brought a stretcher and loaded the dummy into an ambulance, and waved at us before ambling on to the next mock emergency. I thought, it forgot to leave a silver nut, but otherwise this is close to real.

The 2013 Trials Robotic Challenge is sponsored by the Pentagon's DARPA - Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Seventeen teams are competing, mostly from U.S. universities, but also from around the world. The program listed teams from Drexal University, Texas A&M Engineering, Tohoku University, John Hopkins Research Lab, Virginia Tech, Carnegie Robotics, Polaris Industries, Team VIGIR, General Dynamics CA, Boston Dynamics, SRI International, Team Tartan Rescue, the University of Pittsburgh has a light but resilient Hazardous Operations Robot named THOR,

NASA's Jet Propulsion Labs traveled with RoboSimian, a robot that can use all four of its limbs for various tasks, and The Intelligent Pioneer Robot with Team KAIST arrived from South Korea.

An official explained to me that the reason for the DARPA trials is to establish where the science stands, as a reference point, as a way to learn the state of the art right now.

A Carnegie Mellon model called Chimp (CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform) turned the doorknob in a tactical disaster scenario. It took Chimp two minutes to turn the slippery knob, and someone in the bleachers remarked that it was like watching grass grow but no one moved from his seat. However, then he turned a one-foot diameter wheel to shut a steam valve, labored at a fire hose, and deftly cleaned 2×4's and stacked them in a wagon to haul away from the disaster scene. There was every attempt to make the creatures look human, but most were slightly less handsome than Frankenstein.

 Most of the working automations are fabricated for environmental and terrorist attacks, entering burning buildings, and nuclear meltdowns.

Another 4'8" robot of Team Schaft, an elite group of former Tokyo University roboticists whose company was recently acquired by Google, successfully picked up and used a cordless drill to put a hole in a wall at the Disaster Hotel replica, and then punched through the door as the spectators watched from the easy bleachers. This robot is in the lead for overall points, amassing like an Olympics decathlon, as a loudspeaker announced running Team tallies.

A robot driver that resembled a skinless man in a baseball cap with erector set bones was sat into the driver's seat of an automobile, and guided it unaided through an obstacle course of gates and turns. He used a foot on the accelerator and two hands on the steering wheel, with cameras and sensors mounted in his head.

One university team member was programming his Robby with new strategies learned by watching the competition, that would enhance its own performance in today's trials.

Farther down the line of contending machines at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, a human announcer explained, 'There are two factors to consider in robotics: Movement and computing.' Grace and thought popped into my mind.

There were times in the roving crowd when I brushed up against what felt human but wasn't. At the trials, some autonomy was on display. For example, the Atlas robot is designed by Boston Dynamics for the ability to walk on its own, as well as balance, a challenging robotics feat. The announcer sounded staccato and I got confused. But I saw on the 30' big screen a prototype humanoid named Cheetah outrun a 25mph car with long strides. It's what they don't show you that you just can imagine. Someone in the crowd contended to put a gun in his hand and send him to Afghanistan to hunt in the caves.
Nearby, a cement cutting robot raced a human construction worker in cutting through a 3' diameter reinforced pillar. The robot wore ear protection but the man didn't. The smoking blades shot sparks ten feet away.

 The event was being filmed by a camera the size of a diesel engine mounted on the end of a 30' boom.
Suddenly the wide screen burst the image of a middle school student being interviewed in his robotic class while building a basketball player that could dunk. He said that he liked robots because they were unpredictable, and there was blood. He could invite his friends to participate.

Admission to the DAPAR event was free, and drew about a thousand with license plates from all over the southeast, New England and Chicago. I learned not only from the automations but the humans. The Team owners wore the colors of their robots, often reflecting their university colors.

The teams were composed of two strangely matched types: The beefy mechanical engineers who bolted the things together, and the computer ectomorphs who programmed them to think. There were mutual claps on the backs after a Team robot won a task of getting on an industrial ladder and climbing four steps to a landing zone. The school mechanic marveled, 'I know how it climbs but not how it sees the steps,' and the computer specialist rejoined, 'I know how it thinks but not how it lifts its feet.' Ironically, their aim is to build a composite of the two to replace humans in dangerous responses.

An interesting comment was made by a visiting U.S. Air Force pilot, 'Most people think that short pilots are required to fit in the cockpit or for less weight. But the truth is that a tall person has a longer distance between head and heart. He blacks out from the G's sooner. My distance is short so I can go longer before G'ing out.'
There was a 4' diameter drone helicopter designed for environmental survey, and a 6' robot raft built for search and rescue along the hurricane torn Florida coast. 'It can't drown during rescue,' commented the builder, and will not short circuit in a tsunami.

Most of the robots were moving about in serious business. However, a Frisbee thrower tossed with the unerring accuracy and speed of a champ, and a 2' taxidermy fish as a biology teaching tool that actually swims, detects depth and senses oxygen, and knows when to dive or swim closer to the surface. It would not take bait and it's clear that, by sci-fi standards, the robots may disappoint.

My favorite was the sandbox and woodchip challenge box, about 30' long and also filled with dips, hills and stairs. Robots raced end to end and never got stuck, as I have a dozen times at my Sand Valley, CA. The model size, remote control robot vehicles employed two types of locomotors: three sets of sequential tracks like tanks on both sides that pivoted independently from horizontal to vertical, and another that looked like a 4' crab with churning legs that operated independently to flit easily about the sandbox. Now and then, the controller caused it to tear the ground like a bulldog with its feet in a display of bravado.

Pretty, intelligent girls were passing out 'I love robots' stickers and most people slapping them over their hearts. I left before the finals, as the loudspeakers predicted, '2013 is the trials, and at the end of 2014 the real thing.'

When robots can move and sense as well as humans they'll be able to reproduce, and here we are.


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