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Robots compete in Fukushima-inspired US challenge
Pomona, United States (AFP) June 6, 2015

DARPA Robotics Challenge powers up
Pamona, Calif. (UPI) Jun 5, 2015 - Rather than a signal to embrace our robot overlords, the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge, or DRC, is an opportunity to see how robots will in the future be able to assist in life-threatening situations too dangerous for human first responders.

Over the next two days, 25 teams will send their robots through a series of contests designed to mimic natural and man-made disasters while communication with the robots is hampered in ways similar to what would happen in a real disaster. The teams are competing for $3.5 million in prizes, including $2 million for the winning robot's team.

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is responsible for finding and developing leading edge technology for the Department of Defense. Its purpose, since President Dwight Eisenhower established it in 1957 in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, is to develop advanced technological solutions for the U.S. military.

"Disasters, both natural and man-made, are something we see every year happening throughout the world," Gill Pratt, program manager for the DARPA Robotics Challenge, said in a news conference in mid-May. "If we could only intervene [with robots], we could mitigate the extent of these disasters," he said.

The DRC was created in 2011 after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster in Japan when human responders were unable to investigate the scene because the nuclear contamination was too dangerous. Robots, however, could have accessed the scene, helping victims and possibly mitigating some of the fallout much sooner than humans were able to get there.

The main course of the DRC requires the robots to drive a utility vehicle to a staged disaster scene. Once there, they must open a door, locate and close a valve, cut through a wall, and then handle a surprise task of some sort before clearing rubble and opening a door to exit the scene.

The course, according to the DRC, is based on some of what was faced by human responders to Fukushima -- specifically the things they could not do. Organizers of the competition are making the situation as real as possible to put the 25 teams' robots to the test.

"The robots must somehow communicate information about the world they see in the simulated disaster zone to the human being despite interruptions in communication," Pratt said in a press release. "And the human beings must give commands to the robots to execute at a sufficiently high level that they don't need to micromanage, or tele-op as it's called, each one of the motions that the robots do," he added. "And ... that has to happen despite a large number of dropouts in communication."

The major goal, Pratt explained, is to combine robots' ability to do go places humans cannot with humans' ability to make quick, difficult judgment calls and, hopefully, help people that are in bad situations.

"We are trying to make the world a little bit more robust to disasters that are caused by nature or by [people], and in particular DARPA's job is to make investments in early technology," Pratt said.

All the robot runs will be streaming live, Friday and Saturday, on the DRC website.

Robots from six countries including the United States, Japan and South Korea went diode-to-diode Friday in a disaster response challenge inspired by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown.

The winner of the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), to be announced Saturday after a two-day competition in California, will take home $2 million followed by $1 million for the runner-up and $500,000 for third place.

But they will also win the kudos of triumphing after a three-year robotics contest organized by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which commissions advanced research for the US Defense Department.

"The US military has an implicit mission to respond to humanitarian disaster relief. But in order to do so you need the tools to effectively respond," said DARPA official Brad Tousley.

"In many cases you'd like to send robots into the places that it's very dangerous for humans to go into," he told AFP, citing nuclear reactor disasters but also earthquakes and epidemics like Ebola.

In all 24 mostly human-shaped bots and their teams -- 12 from the United States, five from Japan, three from South Korea, two from Germany and one each from Italy and Hong Kong -- won through to the finals.

- Robot obstacle course -

Over the two days, each robot has two chances to compete on an obstacle course comprising eight tasks, including driving, going through a door, opening a valve, punching through a wall and dealing with rubble and stairs.

The challenges facing them in Pomona, just east of Los Angeles, were designed specifically with Fukushima in mind.

After the March 11, 2011 megaquake and tsunami, a team of plant workers set out to enter the darkened reactor buildings and manually vent accumulated hydrogen.

Unfortunately they had to turn back due to radiation -- and in the days that followed hydrogen built up, fueling explosions that extensively damaged the facility, contaminating the enviromnent and drastically worsening the crisis.

"If the Japanese had had advanced robotics systems that could have used tools that we use in everyday life .. they might have prevented some of the damage from the subsequent hydrogen explosions," said Tousley.

While the robotics teams competing in Pomona are focused on the tasks in hand, they also have their eyes on more than just winning the competition.

"Hong Kong is a financial center .. We hope we can inspire the people with more innovation, to be interested in engineering and technology," said Robert Hung from Hong Kong University.

Maurice Fallon of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said that, while robots can be crucial in disaster response, "the applications outside of this domain are very wide.

"Eventually we hope that the technology that is being demonstrated here will be used in our daily lives, from home help to elderly care to agriculture and construction, there are many applications," he told AFP.

- Not Yet Transformers -

But watching the competition in Pomona, it must be said that the technology can appear less than impressive: it takes most robots five minutes to open a door handle, while many of them give up on the task of getting out of a car.

JAXON, the robot from Team NEDO-JSK of the University of Tokyo, is not the only bot to take a tumble, in its case after failing to properly grasp a valve wheel. The felled machine had to be carried away on a stretcher.

They are not exactly Transformers, yet.

"There is a long way to go," admits Tousley. "There's fact and there's fiction. There's a lot of fiction out there that robots are much more capable than they really are.

"But part of DARPA's job is to show the possible, and what we can start to do. And then often other organizations, and other countries or other companies will invest more to bring it along. But it's our job to start that process."

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