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DARPA sets finalists for 'high-risk, high-reward' robotics challenge

DARPA sets finalists for 'high-risk, high-reward' robotics challenge

DARPA has now locked in the list of teams for its Robotics Challenge Finals, noting that the last test will be much harder than those that came before.

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DARPA has locked in the list of teams for its Robotics Challenge Finals, noting that the last test will be much tougher than those that came before.

The finals, which pit teams of robots and their human engineers against each other, will invite 25 teams from around the world, including the U.S., Germany, Italy, Japan and South Korea.

The last competition in the challenge, which focuses on building robots that can work somewhat autonomously in a disaster, will be held June 5-6 in Pomona, Calif. The teams will compete to win one of three cash prizes totaling $3.5 million.

Teams from organizations like MIT, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and NASA have been competing for the last few years to build the software and/or hardware for robots that can walk into a building after a natural or man-made disaster and turn off valves, maneuver over debris, climb stairs and find victims.

Teams had to perform at a certain level to be able to advance in the competition.

DARPA has also allowed 14 teams, like those from the University of Bonn in Germany, the University of Tokyo and the University of Las Vegas, into the finals even though they didn't participate in previous competitions.

The 25 teams won't be facing off against the robot that won the last challenge. Schaft, a Japanese-built robot that was bought by Google, easily won the last challenge, held in December 2013. Google pulled Schaft from the finals, saying it wants to focus on commercial robotics research.

That creates a big opening for the other top competitors.

Gill Pratt, DARPA program manager for the challenge, said today that the new teams had to pass a test to qualify for the finals.

"Some of these 25 teams may not make it," Pratt said during a news conference. "They may not all come. But I feel there is a good chance.... DARPA tries hard things that have high risk and high rewards. This is one of the most difficult parts of the contest."

In previous challenges, robots had to take on different tasks, like driving a car and opening doors. Each task was taken on separately.

In the finals, though, the robots will need to handle the tasks as part of an overall challenge.

Pratt explained that the robots will need to drive up to a simulated disaster area, get out of the vehicle on their own and enter a building while avoiding debris and rough terrain. Once inside, they'll need to turn a valve and hook up wires, use tools to cut a hole through a wall and then climb a set of stairs to get out of the building.

Teams get points for every task completed and will be judged on how fast they accomplish them.

Teams can bypass any task they get stuck on, sacrificing the points they would have otherwise gotten. For instance, teams can decide if they want their robot to walk to the disaster scene instead of driving.

As opposed to 2013, when each team had 30 minutes to finish each task, the teams this time will have only one hour to complete the entire course.

"This will be faster than what you saw at the trials and a significant step forward," said Pratt. "We're raising the bar significantly. We are trying to find the sweet spot between too easy and too hard. I'm very impressed with the progress that the teams have made."

Pratt said he and his team have been traveling around the world to see the progress the 25 robotics teams have been making.

This week and next, the teams also have the opportunity to go to a test site in South Carolina to try out their robots in a working test bed. It's also a chance for DARPA to make sure that its equipment and disaster site simulation works as planned.

"We're excited to see so much international interest in the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals," said Pratt. "The diverse participation indicates not only a general interest in robotics, but also the priority many governments are placing on furthering robotic technology. As this technology becomes increasingly global, cooperating with the United States in areas where there is mutual concern, such as disaster response and homeland security, stands to benefit every country involved."

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