Google’s Newly Acquired SCHAFT Robot Walks Away A Winner

Google’s Newly Acquired SCHAFT Robot Walks Away A Winner
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The teams have broken down their robots and packed them up in crates and suitcases, loaded them into trucks and taken them on aeroplanes and gone home. Some will lick their wounds and rebuild to fight another day. The lucky ones will get a million dollars each from DARPA to continue developing their bots.

The DARPA Robotics Challenge trials, or DRC, ended yesterday. The 16 teams and their bots pushed, stumbled, drove, strutted and clambered their way through 8 disaster recovery-related challenges put to them by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the Pentagon’s mad science arm, over the course of the last two days.

“This has been an extraordinary event that has exceeded my expectations by multiple, multiple times,” said Gill Pratt, the DARPA program manager in charge of the DRC, during a closing ceremony. “I’ve been saying to the media for quite some time that I would be thrilled — thrilled — if even one of the teams scored half of the points in the DRC trials. Well, it turns out that 4 scored over half the number of points.”

Team SCHAFT, which got started at Tokyo University and became a private company, ruled the field, garnering best in task awards in half of the challenges: the walking on uneven terrain challenge; the ladder-climbing challenge; debris clearing; and the hose-connecting challenge.

Team leader Yuto Nakanishi focused intently on his bot, a 1.65-metre, 94-kilogram blue bipedal machine, as it moved with uncanny grace through the challenges. Nakanishi was the very picture of cool and collected until the machine completed a given task with nary a stumble, at which point he pumped his fists and let rip a victory yell.

SCHAFT ruled the Challenge, but now Google rules SCHAFT. The Internet search company confirmed a week before the DRC trails that it had bought the team along with Boston Dynamics, the company that built the Atlas robots with which 7 of the teams competed.

A Boston Dynamics team member told me that Google seems intent on letting his company continue doing its thing: building robots inspired by animals, including us puny humans. Boston Dynamics’ biggest customer has been DARPA. Whether or not that will change is anyone’s guess right now.

Bottom photo courtesy of DARPA

One person who might be just as happy not to have the Pentagon in charge of the most capable general purpose humanoid robots in the world is Mark Gubrud of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control.

Gubrud buttonholed me between events to put the fear of God into me about the possible future of these machines. “Clearly there’s interest in robot soldiers. That’s clearly the long-term goal here, as well as robots to do other dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs,” Gruber explained to Gizmodo. His group seeks an international ban on death-dealing autonomous robots. “I think there’s an intuitive sense of horror at it, that it’s an offence to human dignity for a human being to be killed on the decision of a machine — it is a human responsibility to maintain control of the use of force.”

But death was far from most people’s minds as the Challenge closed.

“This entire week was an extremely safe enterprise,” said Brad Tousley, DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office director in a post-event press briefing. “You had 16 robots with a large number of free specters, a large number of competitors, a large number of government folks working in it. There wasn’t a single problem all week with any safety issues, nor was there an issue with any person getting injured or having a problem.”

Team SCHAFT crowded the outdoor stage during the closing ceremonies last night to accept first-place honours. SCHAFT was the clear winner with 27 total points in the event.

Team IHMC Robotics, from Pensacola, Florida and driving a Boston Dynamics Atlas robot, came in second place with 20 points.

Carnegie Mellon University’s team, Tartan Rescue, took third place with 18 points.

Team MIT was next, with 16 points.

NASA JPL’s RoboSimian took fifth place with 14 points.

TRACLabs and the Wooster Polytechnic team, WRECS, tied for sixth place with 11 points each, while the Lockheed Martin-funded team, TROOPER, came last of the top finishers with 9 points.

Alas, the DIY team Mojavaton — mentioned in most recent post — didn’t score any points. But, then, neither did the big-budget NASA JSC team, Valkyrie. In all likelihood, both will be back next year for the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals.

All 8 of the top-finishing teams are eligible to receive a cool million bucks in funding from DARPA to continuing honing their robots leading up to next year’s Finals. They will more than likely put most of their effort into improving the software for controlling the machines and refining the code that allows them to perform their tasks with supervised autonomy.

DARPA’s deputy manager, Steven Walker, told me that he’s sure next year the bots will zip around at much faster speeds than the shuffling movements of this year’s bots. The SCHAFT robot offered a glimpse of what’s to come. Instead of moving one slow, halting step at a time, that machine practically hopped over the rough terrain course, high-stepping it like an ostrich with sure, seemingly confident strides. It all but bounded up the stairs in the ladder challenge, moving without hesitation up two steps at a time.

Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait an entire year to find out — but stay tuned for Gizmodo’s coverage of the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals in December 2014.

Michael Belfiore is the author of The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA Is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs.