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Redemption, tech advances -- and US$2M prize -- drive DARPA robotics finalists

Sharon Gaudin | June 8, 2015
DARPA is looking to advance robotics and autonomous software to the point that during a disaster, machines could go into dangerous areas and buildings on the verge of collapse to turn off systems, find victims and investigate damage.

POMONA, Calif. — The leader of one of the 24 teams competing in this week's finals of the DARPA Robotics Challenge didn't think he'd be here.

Actually, he didn't really want to be here.

Until six months ago, Paul Oh, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, had no intention, or interest, in competing in the DARPA challenge that is bringing in two dozen teams from around the world to see who has built the best robot for in a search-and-rescue mission.

After a disappointing showing as the team leader with Drexel University in the December 2013 robotics challenge trials, Oh had moved on to UNLV and was looking forward to sitting in the stands and watching other teams compete. Then DARPA called and asked him to get back in the game.

Now, for Oh, it's all about redemption.

"DARPA reached out to me and I said, 'Why would I? Why relive this?'" Oh said. "I have mixed feelings about doing this again, but I do want redemption. And if they can take a little piece of something we developed and put that to use for disaster response, we'll have done our job."

For more than two years, teams from the likes of NASA, Carnegie Mellon University, Virginia Tech, Lockheed Martin and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, have been building robots - some two-footed, some four-footed - to take on this challenge.

The winner, to be announced Saturday afternoon, will go home with a $2 million prize. The runner up gets $1 million, with the team in third place taking $500,000.

That's a lot of money to fund continued research, but many of these researchers are simply looking to push themselves and robotics technology.

DARPA, of course, is looking to advance robotics and autonomous software to the point that during a disaster, machines could go into dangerous areas and buildings on the verge of collapse to turn off systems, find victims and investigate damage. The idea is to send robots where it's too dangerous for humans to go.

Gearing up for the finals

On Thursday, the teams gathered at the Fairplex here to take their first run at the course, which combines eight different tasks - like driving a car, climbing stairs, turning a valve and navigating a debris pile — in one simulated disaster scenario.

The robots will take their first official run at the course on Friday and make a second attempt on Saturday. Judges will score the teams on the number of tasks completed, along with the amount of time it took them to finish the course. (The robots will only have one hour to complete the tasks, along with a surprise task they haven't been able to prepare for.)

 

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