DARPA Challenge: Behind the Scenes

Here at CuriosityStream, our series and documentaries cover everything from the origins of the universe to the cultural and technical revolutions that created the world we recognize today. But we don’t stop there. Beyond our rich history looms another vast expanse of time: the future. Technology is shaping even the most fundamental aspects of our human experience. Who knows what the world of tomorrow will actually look like? The DARPA Robotics Challenge might give us a sneak peek.

This week, beginning on June 5th, the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) will highlight the most cutting-edge robotics technology being developed around the world. And you can watch it live right here on live.CuriosityStream.com. 25 teams will face off in California, putting their robots to the test against some of the most technically challenging real-life tasks designed by man.

DARPA – the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – is often called the mad science division of the Pentagon. The idea of the robotics challenge came about after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear meltdown in 2011. DARPA scientists wondered, could robots have done what man couldn’t do in that disaster? Could robots have saved the day? When I talked to Gill Pratt, Program Manager for the Robotics Challenge, about Fukushima, he told me: “…That first day, if human beings or anyone had been able to open the ventilation valves…[the] three big explosions would not have occurred.” Could a machine be designed to go where sending humans would be too dangerous, if not impossible? And the Robotics Challenge was born.

I’ve been lucky enough to follow two competing teams on the road to the Robotics Challenge — Tartan Rescue and Team ViGIR. And let’s get one thing straight: even though the event takes place right outside of Los Angeles, these are not Hollywood’s robots. They’re not capable of running 60 miles per hour or jumping over buildings. And they’re certainly not a heartbeat away from becoming self-aware and taking over the world. But they do represent the pinnacle of human engineering and software development achievement to date.

Florian is Team ViGIR’s robot entry. The 6’ 2”, 300-pound humanoid machine lacks the dexterity of an adult human, but it’s hugely powerful and more than capable of tackling the myriad of disaster-related tasks for which it has been designed. I found it fascinating that Florian was designed by a team with members from several international universities. They collaborated across nine different time zones! Despite the challenges they faced, including a late arrival of their robot and a broken arm close to the contest date, I felt their exuberant energy when I met them. They truly embody the enthusiasm and forward-thinking dynamic that defines the robotics community.

Tartan Rescue’s CHIMP robot is another terrific example of today’s most sophisticated robotic capabilities. Inspired by previous autonomous vehicle technology, CHIMP can move on all four limbs, or stand and walk. This simian-inspired machine finished third during the 2013 trials, and is currently one of the heavy favorites to take the win.

Regardless of the outcome, the DRC is a testament to how far robotics have evolved over the last few years. While the AI machines of the silver screen won’t be on display, what you will see is the cutting-edge work that may one day get us there. Remember to check out the Robotics Challenge live, right here on CuriosityStream.

Jorge Franzini

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