DRC-HUBO Enters a Door -Image Credit: DARPA

Imagine yourself stranded in a building after an earthquake. Rubble is strewn about and doors are blocked, but amazingly, a humanoid robot walks in, drills through walls and climbs cinderblocks to save the day.  It may sounds like science fiction, but the DARPA Robotics Challenge was designed to bring about robots which can perform precisely these sort of tasks.

Last month in Pomona, CA, the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals asked robots to prove their readiness by completing various disaster response tasks.  The robots attempted to drive and exit a vehicle, navigate doorways, shut off valves and circuit breakers, walk over rubble, and climb stairs -- with a spotty signal to boot.  Three robots were able to complete all eight tasks in the challenge, and were thus judged based on their finishing time.

“DRC-Hubo” by Team Kaist from the Republic of Korea was awarded first place for successfully completing the course in 44 minutes, 28 seconds.  Next up was “Running Man” from Team IHMC of Pensacola, FL, while “CHIMP” from Team Tartan Rescue of Pittsburgh, PA came in third.  Cash prizes, totaling $3.5 million, were awarded to the three finalists.

One thing you may notice is the amount of time that it took the robots to complete a course that, in all honesty, your average child could complete in about 2 minutes. Yes, there were a number of slips and falls and moments of down time. But then again, these are just the beginning stages, and the future may hold promise of even better.

Interestingly, a number of the robots competing were humanoid and able to walk on two limbs, including the top two finalists. From the Republic of Korea, “DRC-Hubo,” which stands for “HUmanoid roBOt,” additionally distinguished itself by its ability to kneel onto rollers for faster motion.  In the making since 2002, the “DRC-Hubo” robot brought home $2 million for Team Kaist.

In second place, the IHMC robot, “Running Man” is an astounding 6-foot, 2-inches and over 380 pounds.  "I am incredibly proud of our robotics team," IHMC CEO/Director Ken Ford told reporters.  "They did an amazing job finishing second overall.”  The robot’s software utilized a new method of “bi-directional information exchange,” such that the operators could preview and verify the actions of the robot.  Recognized as an advance in the field, DARPA requested that the IHMC shared the software with other teams.  IHMC computer scientist and team member Doug Stephen said, "It's not about beating the other teams, as it is advancing the research and sharing that with the world."

WATCH: Robots Navigate Disasters

“It was an incredible experience,” said Tony Stenz in a press release.  Stenz is the Team Tartan Rescue leader and Carnegie Mellon University research professor of robotics.  “It means there’s great promise for this technology.”  Unlike the other humanoid robots, the third-place “CHIMP” was designed to be more stable by rolling on tank-like threads, while either upright or crawling on all four limbs.

There were 23 participating teams in the competition, including twelve from the United States and another eleven from Japan, Germany, Italy, Republic of Korea and Hong Kong.  DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar remarked, “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."

CHIMP Exits the Vehicle - Image Credit: DARPA

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