Friday, December 20, 2013

Robot Olympics

Today in Homestead, Florida DARPA kicked off their “Robot Olympics,” formally known as the DARPA Robotics Challenge.  The contest, with a $2 million top prize, pits sixteen robotics teams against each other in a robot showdown.  Each team’s robot will attempt to complete a series of tasks from climbing a ladder to driving a vehicle.  The teams hail from all over the world, with front running delegations from South Korea, MIT, NASA, and China.  

The competition was born out of the need for semi-autonomous robots that could be operable in the aftermath of a disaster.  The Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 provided impetus for robotic research, and this DARPA project in particular.  Nuclear technicians have said that had someone been able to enter the plant post-meltdown to open a number of vents in order to relieve pressure, some of the explosions that leaked nuclear material could have been avoided.  The area was, however, heavily radiated and unsafe for human responders.  A more versatile version of a bomb-diffusing robot would have been useful in order to complete the task without endangering lives.

It’s not much of a leap to see how semi-autonomous robots that can remove rubble, drive vehicles, and move in uneven terrain would be useful to the Pentagon in other ways.  These robots are, however, incredibly expensive and inefficient when it comes to completing tasks humans have no problem with, like climbing through a window or interpreting visual cues.  DARPA’s unsettling robot mule, which set the agency back $10 million, is about as far as the Defense Department has come in creating a robot with the mobility of a living organism.  Aside from being bulletproof, it’s hard to make the argument that the machine is superior to your standard garden-variety mule, given the cost. 

It's also interesting to consider the implications of crowdsourcing ideas for what is usually one of the most secretive and shadowy agencies in the security apparatus.  Securing defense secrets is difficult enough within a vast and expanding defense contracting community; creating a contest for some of the most advanced technologies means the Pentagon will have access to the best and the brightest in the field, but it's also a forum ripe for intellectual property theft.

Before the week is out we should know whether this contest is the beginning of a revolution in technological warfare or simply a nerd forum for showing off half-formed robot prototypes, years from making any real impact.  I'm guessing it's the latter.

The rest of the competition is being streamed live here:

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