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The Slow Trudging Advance of Robotics

by: Gavin Bluthe  /  June 5, 2015

As time marches on, so does the presence and ability of machines and computers marching with us. Many people fear the day when computers and devices begin to walk independently. However, whether it is due to science fiction or actual issues present in the progressing system, they still have a far way to go before then.

Despite the distance to these possibilities, many people wish to push the envelope further and bring autonomous robotics around even sooner. Among the dozens of robotics competitions held annually worldwide, many stand out. One that is particularly eye-catching is that of the DARPA Robotics Challenge.

This challenge is specifically meant to usher developers towards a point where Robots can act and work without the need for human instruction, at least in the perspective of a natural disaster, and help in relief efforts. The challenge takes robots and presents them with a series of complex tasks, require a certain level of strength and demonstrate the robot's dexterity, all while losing and regaining connection with the controllers.

Such tasks include:

Driving a vehicle.

Maneuvering through a loose and uncertain landscape of rubble.

  • Opening doors.
  • Even cutting through a barrier made of drywall.

Such tasks require a very diversely equipped robot that can go beyond much of the current level of analytics.

With many contenders, it is a jam-packed event as many try their hands at the challenge. So long as the robot can complete the challenges, then it can be considered a success. There is no cheating in the contest. Anything that can give the robot a boost over the competition results from a lot of work by the engineers and designers to provide it with said advantage. Some robots can switch between legs and four-legged tread-like transportation to cross over areas that are likely to cause a fall. Others are solely bipedal and require extensive calibration to handle uneven terrain. The many designs and approaches to making it through the competition are all vying for a $2 Million prize in funding to continue their project.

The DARPA Robotics Challenge is a great initiative to press the field for constant advancement. The DARPA event was spawned as a result of the Fukushima Disaster in 2011. When trying to survey the disaster results from a remote location, time after time, robots were being found to be ineffective or, at the worst, completely unequipped to deal with the challenges presented to them.

From simple tasks like turning doorknobs to moving through lousy terrain, the robots failed to meet the challenge left and right. To push the frontier and presence of robotics, in addition to their ability to be used in disaster relief, the DARPA challenge was created. Some engineers compared the level of intelligence now displayed by some of the top robots being tested between an insect and a tiny mouse. While this may not be very much, it shows that the field of robotics has made an immense movement forward in the time that it has been developing.

To prepare for the finals, running today and tomorrow, each team was allotted $1.5 Million in funding. Getting an hour to run through the entire course and score as many points as possible, all the teams will be competing simultaneously. However slow of an event that it might end up being (Compared by some to paint drying), it is an essential step in robotics.

Written by Gavin Bluthe  /  June 5, 2015