POMONA, Calif. - People cheered and clapped, yelled support and literally held their breath as the two-legged, humanoid robot from Team IHMC drove a car, drilled a hole in a wall and turned a valve.
Then as the robot, nearly at the finish line, tried to step off a pile of cinder blocks, it swayed and crashed to the ground.
The robot, which was the clear leader in the first day of the finals of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, fell not once but twice.
"It was one of the first tasks we could do," said Nicolas Eyssette, a research intern and programmer on Team IHMC (Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition), referring to the task where the robot is supposed to step over debris. "I'm very surprised."
Still, the robot, known as Running Man, leads the pack of eight robots that were tested on the course that simulates a disaster scene. The robot's team reached a score of six out of a possible eight points.
Team Trooper, led by Lockheed Martin, was in second place with two points, while Team HRP2 from Japan's National Institute of Industrial Science and Technology, and Team Walkman from the Italian Institute of Technology, both have one point each.
Only eight of the 24 teams competing in the DARPA Robotics Challenge finals have run the course so far today. The first four teams to compete this morning were unable to score a single point. One of those first robots got stuck in the dirt leading up to the door of the course and fell over. Others fell before even getting close to the door.
Despite the falls and the fails, the robots running the course in the finals of this two-and-a-half-year challenge are significantly more advanced from the earlier versions that competed in the trials of this competition in December 2013.
A year and a half ago, it was common for a robot to need as long as five or 10 minutes to take a single step.
Today, some of these robots walk nearly as quickly as an adult human. They turn valves and open doors. They may do it slowly, but they're far ahead of where they were in the trials that led up to the finals.
"The amazing thing to me is they've advanced so much in 18 months," said Laurie Leshin, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, whose team is competing in the finals today. "In the trials, the eight tasks were done individually, and now they're done back to back and the robots are untethered so they can fall down. That makes it much more edge-of-your-seat exciting."
DARPA is running the challenge in an effort to get roboticists from around the world focused on developing hardware and software for semi-autonomous robots that can be used to help victims in a disaster.
If a robot could be sent into a damaged building, or a nuclear facility, to turn off systems, search for victims and check for damage, it would save a human emergency worker from having to go into a dangerous situation.
During the opening ceremony this morning, Gill Pratt, a program manager with DARPA, recalled the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan and led a meltdown of three of the plant's nuclear reactors.
"Robots were sent to Japan to help," said Pratt. "They did their best but what they could do was not enough. They couldn't turn those vent valves off. The inability of our best robots to make a profound effect in the short term was disastrous."
DARPA leaders are hoping the competition will lead to robots that are quicker, more stable and more autonomous so they could make a difference in a disaster situation.
Leshin, who was a senior scientist at NASA and worked on the Mars rover Curiosity science team, said she's most impressed at the challenge with the advances in the overall robotic systems.
"To me, one of the most exciting technology advances is seeing the system level work with vision, computational power, the ability to use tools and automation," she told Computerworld. "Any of these technologies individually is tough to do, but making them work all together is impressive."
Today is the first official day of the finals. All 24 teams will compete on the course today, and will be able to repeat the course on Saturday.
DARPA will take the highest score from both days and combine it with the speed the teams needed to complete the course to award the top team.
The winner will go home with $2 million, while the second-place team will receive $1 million and the third-place team will get $500,000.