Japanese Robots: The DARPA Robotics Challenge is Underway - Go Team SCHAFT, GO! (VIDEO)
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The World’s Greatest Humanoid Robots are in Florida
...for a few days, anyway. In the garages and open spaces of the Homestead Miami Speedway, 17 teams have gathered for the latest round in the first-ever global competition for practical humanoid rescue & response robots: the penultimate competition in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) is underway!
Those interested but unfamiliar with the competition might wanna click through.
Japanese Robots: On DARPA, SCHAFT, and the Peace Constitution (and bad reporting)
Today’s & tomorrow's task-focused trials include 6 Track A teams competing with original hardware & software (continuously funded by DARPA), 7 Track B/C teams using customized versions of the DARPA-supplied ATLAS robot (the partially DARPA-funded Virtual Robotics Challenge winners), and 4 Track D teams using original hardware and software (self-funded).
Both the robots and the minds behind them are nothing short of amazing, and that this contest so effectively came together in only 13 months is itself an impressive feat. No doubt, these are exciting days in the robogeekosphere, and this is a truly salient moment in in the arrow of human technological progress. There is every reason to be awed and inspired.
…but Let’s also Stay on the Ground
Parallel to all the excitement, it’s imperative to stress the reality factor. These machines are mostly non-autonomous, i.e., there'll be lots of remote control, and they are not sleek nor graceful nor speedy; to eyes accustomed to sci-fi fantasy, they will be unimpressive. The DRC will demonstrate the reality of cutting edge humanoid robotics - CGI is not included.
So, our best advice: don’t take the ’D’ from DRC and extrapolate to Terminator. If you expect anything even remotely similar to DATA, RoboCop, the Positronic Man, or even Johnny 5, you will be fantastically disappointed. In fact, though we're firmly in the "probably not" camp, it is entirely possible that not one of these fabulous robots will succeed in completing all 8 tasks required to pass these trials and move on toward competing for next year's $2 million purse (not to mention the far more valuable prestige).
SCHAFT: Japan’s Lone Team Represents
SCHAFT Robotics (GALLERY; HI-RES GALLERY) has a deep mechanical and intellectual legacy, probably the deepest of all 17 contestants. We’ll spare you the particulars of the lineage, but just know that it goes all the way back to Honda’s pre-ASIMO humanoid robotics research, involves the funding and input of two major Japanese government agencies, runs software that's been consistently refined for well over a decade, and is made up of researchers schooled at Tokyo University’s JSK Robotics Lab.**
Although the SCHAFT Robotics team comes with an unparalleled pedigree and is considered a top contender, and even though establishing the DRC itself was motivated in large part by the Fukushima Daiichi component of the 2011 Tohoku Disaster, we’ve seen and heard very little from them in the 13 months since the challenge began (in English or Japanese). The video above, released about 36 hours ago, offers the clearest view yet of what the SCHAFT robot is capable of and how it goes about completing the 8 essential DRC tasks:
1. Drive a utility vehicle at the site.
2. Travel dismounted across rubble.
3. Remove debris blocking an entryway.
4. Open a door and enter a building.
5. Climb an industrial ladder and traverse an industrial walkway.
6. Use a tool to break through a concrete panel.
7. Locate and close a valve near a leaking pipe.
8. Connect a fire hose to a standpipe and turn on a valve.
Yes, it is possible that neither Team SCHAFT's machine nor any other will successfully accomplish all 8 tasks, but if the video above is any indication - even granted that it was filmed in very controlled environments with multiple takes - Japan's offereing clearly deserves its contender status. No matter what the outcome, humanity's going to learn a whole lot about robots today.
AkihabaraNews sends congratulations to all teams who've made it this far, and with regards from Tokyo, best of luck to all!
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*Team K, a Track B/C team, is also from Japan, but after the Virtual Robotics Challenge, they were absorbed into the multinational conglomerate Team HKU. Information on Team K is sparse and the details of their contribution are unknown.
**It bears mentioning that SCHAFT Robotics was recently acquired by Google, so technically there are no purely Japanese teams participating in the DARPA Robotics Challenge. Hey, Mr. Japan's Traditionally Anti-Startup Business Climate, how's that feel? We’re pretty sure Honda’s hard at work on ASIMO X, but still, decades of Japanese intellectual capital being snatched up by an American company should be a collective J-tech facepalm.
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Sources: DARPA Robotics Challenge; AkihabaraNews.com
Images: SCHAFT Robotics; DARPA; AkihabaraNews.com