As a packed crowd watched from the grandstand, a 443-pound robot named CHIMP ground its rubberized feet against the pavement and began to climb a set of stairs at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds. Heaving back and forth in the afternoon sun, the 4-foot-11-inch robot struggled slowly upwards, finally mounting a platform to cheers from the crowd. Tony Stentz, the Carnegie Mellon University professor who led the effort to build CHIMP, hailed his team’s ability to “turn what could have been a disaster into a success.”
Dealing with disaster was, in fact, the theme of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, a two-day competition in which 23 teams—from the United States, South Korea, Japan, Germany, Italy, and Hong Kong—set their humanoid robots to eight tasks of the kind that rescue workers might have to do in an emergency. “It’s about trying to advance the technology for disaster response,” said Gill Pratt, the program manager for the Robotics Challenge at the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. But it’s not hard to envision future versions of these robots showing up on a battlefield in years to come, and some believe that could turn these roboticists’ success into a disaster.
Still, that’s some time away. The Fairgrounds course, modeled roughly on the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant that melted down in 2011, in no way resembled, say, the mountainous battlegrounds of Afghanistan. “The terrain at the competition is benign, to be honest,” said Ronald Arkin, a robotics professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “The land is flat; there are relatively few impediments to walking, except at the last part of the course; and the environment is fairly well characterized”—meaning that the robots could be programmed in advance with a pretty good idea of what the course would look like.