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Transforming robot crowned the winner of DARPA's Robotics Challenge

Two-day finals in California saw robots wielding drills and driving cars

A South Korean team has won the $2 million top prize at the finals of DARPA's Robotic Challenge (DRC) with a transforming bipedal bot that can scoot around on wheels in its knees. The winning design from Team KAIST managed to navigate DARPA's obstacle course in under 45 minutes, successfully completing eight natural disaster-related tasks including walking over rubble, driving a car, tripping circuit breakers, and turning valves.

The DRC was set up after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, with the aim of accelerating the development of robots that can respond to man-made or natural disasters. Twenty-three teams competed in the finals, with a dozen entering from the US, and the rest traveling from countries including Germany, Italy, Japan, and Hong Kong.

The teams had been developing their robots for more than two years and have tried the challenges before. However, while previous trials gave the robots 30 minutes to complete each task, the two-day finals — staged in front of thousands of spectators in California — pushed the teams to complete all eight in less than an hour. Only three robots managed to successfully tackle them all, and the rest, well, they fell down a lot.

"What did people do every time a robot scored a point? They cheered!"

"These robots are big and made of lots of metal, and you might assume people seeing them would be filled with fear and anxiety," said the event's organizer Gill Pratt in a press statement. "But we heard groans of sympathy when those robots fell. And what did people do every time a robot scored a point? They cheered! It's an extraordinary thing, and I think this is one of the biggest lessons from DRC — the potential for robots not only to perform technical tasks for us, but to help connect people to one another."

Although Team KAIST took home the top prize, second place (and $1 million) went to Team IHMC Robotics, who used the Atlas robot built by Google-owned Boston Dynamics. Third place and $500,000 went to Team Tartan Rescue from Carnegie Mellon University, who finished with the top score at the end of the first day but were eventually overtaken.

"This is the end of the DARPA Robotics Challenge but only the beginning of a future in which robots can work alongside people to reduce the toll of disasters," said DARPA director Arati Prabhakar in a press statement. "I am so proud of all the teams that participated and know that the community that the DRC has helped to catalyze will do great things in the years ahead."

All photos by Mark Ralston and Chip Somodevilla. Image credit: Getty Images

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