Since 2012, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has held a competition for robotics labs to build semi-autonomous robots that can take on complex tasks in dangerous environments. At the competition's finals, which took place over the weekend, free-standing robots duked it out to prove they could save lives in a disaster scenario.
The parameters of the challenge: driving a vehicle, getting out without help, opening a door and going through it, navigating debris by either walking over it or removing it, using a saw to cut a hole in a wall and reach through the opening to open a valve, crossing uneven ground covered in debris and pipes, plugging in a cord and climbing stairs.
Plenty of robots experienced some heart-sinking spills during the challenge. One, however, stood out above the rest.
Hailing from KAIST research university and Hubo Lab in Daejeon, South Korea, Team KAIST's DRC-HUBO robot achieved the tasks with the highest score and quickest time, beating crowd favorite IHMC by almost six minutes and taking home the $2 million grand prize. At the helm of the team is Jun Ho Oh, one of the foremost humanoid robot experts in the world. It was tough competition for the 22 teams KAIST was up against.
While most of the robots relied on bipedal walking movement to get around, DRC-HUBO was equipped with wheels on its knees and feet, making it able to roll quickly on open, level ground, then return to standing mode for walking tasks.
Robots' most difficult tasks are often getting out of cars and walking up stairs. Both tasks were major point-killers for KAIST's competition. One bot, IHMC's Running Man, had a bad fall trying to take on the stairs.
While DRC-HUBO's achievement shows promise for the future of disaster relief, don't expect to see robots replace human rescuers any time soon. The best robot of the whole competition took roughly an hour to do what's probably a five- to 10-minute task for a human, and it had some issues along the way.
But just like in growing humans, there's a teething process. And now that KAIST's robot has shown what it can do, we're well on the way to taking human lives out of harm's way and ushering in a new era of rescue missions.
Here's Team KAIST's DRC-HUBO running through the whole course, sped up by VentureBeat.