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Redemption, tech advances -- and US$2M prize -- drive DARPA robotics finalists

Sharon Gaudin | June 8, 2015
DARPA is looking to advance robotics and autonomous software to the point that during a disaster, machines could go into dangerous areas and buildings on the verge of collapse to turn off systems, find victims and investigate damage.

DARPA will take the top score from each team from the two days.

For many of these roboticists, more than two years of work all comes down to two one-hour challenges.

Matt DeDonato, team leader from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) team, said his crew has easily spent thousands of hours, if not tens of thousands of hours, working on their robot, affectionately named Warner.

"I think at this point, we've done the best that we can," said DeDonato. "It's about the work we put in. The competition doesn't matter as much. Seeing these amazing robots isn't something you see every day."

A broken robot

Dennis Hong, team leader and a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UCLA, is also excited to see the different robots competing at the finals.

On Thursday night, though, he wasn't spending time checking out the competition. He was too busy trying to fix serious damage to his robot.

During UCLA's practice run on Thursday, the humanoid robot was about to get out of the car after driving onto the course when the wind slammed the car's door shut, breaking the robot's shoulder. The motor in the shoulder broke, while metal brackets in the joint were warped.

If Hong's team can't repair the shoulder, they'll have to use a backup robot that they don't have as much confidence in.

Hong didn't appear too stressed about the situation. Working under pressure is something the teams have gotten used to.

"This is the top of the top — the cream of the crop," he said. "In the future, when someone speaks at a conference or develops new technology, it will be by people in this building. Winning here doesn't mean you're the best. There's going to be a lot of luck to it."

WPI's DeDonato knows what it's like to work with a handicapped robot. Earlier this year, WPI's 7-foot-tall, Boston Dynamics-built humanoid robot had a broken arm. They couldn't stop preparing for the finals while they waited for it to be fixed.

That means they simply learned how to run through most of their tasks with one arm, leading DeDonato to joke that the robot can now get through much of the course with one hand tied behind its back.

On Thursday, the WPI team had both robotic arms working, though engineers were trying to fix a hand that broke before their practice run.

Luck plays a role

There's a lot of luck involved in doing well at the competition, according to UNLV's Oh, but it's also about learning to overcome broken parts and problems on the course — because that's what robots actually working in a disaster area will face.


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