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It's been dubbed the robot Olympics. It sounds like something from a comic book or a science fiction novel, but it's real and happening today and tomorrow in Homestead, Florida. The DARPA Robot Challenge is a world-class competition that's sponsored by the Defense Department with $2 million for the team that wins. NPR's Greg Allen reports 16 teams from around the world brought robots to compete in eight events.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: The tasks don't sound Olympian, opening a door, climbing a ladder, turning a valve, driving a vehicle. Simple for people, but for a robot it's cutting edge.
The competition is at the Homestead Speedway, a Nascar track south of Miami. The Defense Department's research agency, DARPA, organized the robotics challenged. DARPA's Gill Pratt says the inspiration for it came from the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. As hydrogen gas built up in the reactors, people sent in to open valves were unable to do so because the radiation was too high.
Investigators say if those valves had been opened, the damage and radiation released would have been far less. Pratt says DARPA believes robots may be able to play key roles in future disasters.
GILL PRATT: Can we, in the best case, actually intervene to lower the severity of the disaster by intervening in its evolution, such as in the case of the Fukushima power plant, sending the robot in to go and open the valves.
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ALLEN: Under throbbing loud speakers at the Speedway, garages usually filled by Nascar teams are now home to researchers from MIT, Virginia Tech, Lockhead and NASA. Carnegie Mellon's entry is a red, vaguely humanoid robot called CHIMP. Like many of the robot names, an acronym but don't ask. Tony Stenz, the director of the National Robotics Engineering Center there, says he was intrigued by the idea of developing a robot for disaster response.
TONY STENZ: You could put a robot like CHIMP in an environment where there's a risk of fire or an explosion or, you know, a toxic gas leak. And it could do work rather than subjecting a person to that risk.
ALLEN: Instead of feet, CHIMP moves on tracks sort of like tank treads. And while it does well on tasks involving manipulation, like opening a door, Stentz says CHIMP's not so good on mobility, things like driving a vehicle or moving over rough terrain. As for climbing the ladder...
STENZ: We're going to try it, but it's certainly not a strength.
ALLEN: Out on the speedway track this morning, one of the two robots from NASA (unintelligible) was having problems.
NIC RADFORD: Well, right now we're supposed to clear debris that's blocking a doorway.
ALLEN: Nic Radford with the Johnson Space Center team says his group is working through "network problems." By this afternoon, clearly one of the teams to watch was Schaft, a group from Japan that was leading all competitors. The Schaft team, though, wasn't giving interviews. Nearby, Brett Kennedy, with RoboSimian, was happy to talk.
BRETT KENNEDY: We don't have arms and legs; we have limbs. Each one of those limbs is capable of both mobility and manipulation. Each one of those limbs will ultimately have a hand at the end of it.
ALLEN: Like the name implies, RoboSimian, is inspired by our primate cousins. It's another NASA robot, this one from the Jet Propulsion Lab. It has our limbs, which makes it more stable than by pedal robots. Computer scientists and engineers here say it's a rare opportunity, the chance to see the leaders in robotics bringing their work out into the field. Kennedy says while everyone would like to win, it's still pretty collegial.
KENNEDY: Most of us are much more concerned with pushing robotics forward than we are with beating the other guy. That's not really the point.
ALLEN: DARPA's robotic challenge continues through tomorrow. Teams that make it through this round will receive a million dollars in additional funding. The winner of the finals next year takes home $2 million and bragging rights to the world's top robot. Greg Allen, NPR News, Homestead, Fla.