ARUN RATH, HOST:
These fans are cheering for robots. They're at the DARPA Robotics Challenge, which is sponsored by the Defense Department. Twenty-three teams from around the world competing for a $2 million prize and their challenge for this year - to build a robot that can aid in disaster recovery. Teams have been working on these robots for three years. And this weekend in Pomona, Calif., thousands watched as the humanoid robots showed off their skills. NPR's Priska Neely checked it out.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And it's through the door (cheering).
PRISKA NEELY, BYLINE: The rules are simple - a robot has to accomplish eight tasks, which include driving a car, opening a door, pulling a lever and climbing some stairs, all within one hour. Before I arrived, a DARPA rep told me something pretty funny. He expected most or all of the robots to fall down at some point. And as soon as I got there, I saw that was true.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD SIGHING IN DISBELIEF)
NEELY: That particular robot had already inched its way through most of the course, only to fall flat on its back trying to walk up stairs. So what's the point of all of this? The idea was born after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
ARATI PRABHAKAR: Robots weren't able to help in the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
NEELY: That's Arati Prabhakar, the head of DARPA.
PRABHAKAR: Think about having a robot that could walk into a dangerously structurally unsound building but was able to get inside and start figuring out what we need to do to start getting that place cleaned up.
NEELY: But the robots at this competition are not there yet. These are not the agile creatures from my "iRobot" or "Chappie."
PRABHAKAR: We're not in the business of science fiction at DARPA. We're about science fact. And one thing this competition is really showing is where robots are today.
NEELY: The robots here today are relying heavily on their human overlords. Each team has people in a separate garage pushing buttons to trigger every move the robots make on the course. The idea is that in a disaster humans wouldn't be able to get close.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Game face mode, OK?
NEELY: I'm camped out in the garage with Team THOR.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Three, two, one.
NEELY: This team includes students from UCLA and UPenn. Steve McGill is at the helm sitting clustered around big screens. He can only see what the robot sees and senses.
STEVE MCGILL: Look, this is the first obstacle in front of us right here. So maybe we need to turn more.
NEELY: It takes over 40 minutes, but Team THOR's robot is having success. It drives down the track, opens the door and turns the valve. But then...
MCGILL: Yeah, there's the sun. I got it.
NEELY: ...It falls on its back - time's up. In the end, the team scores 3 out of 8 points. That's average. Most of the teams here scored three points or less.
MCGILL: I mean, I'm stoked that we got that far.
NEELY: Across the garage, there is a robot that will absolutely stop you in your tracks - Carnegie Mellon's bright red hulking bot.
TONY STENTZ: So you're looking at CHIMP.
NEELY: Tony Stentz, one of its creators, introduces me.
STENTZ: See, it has arms and hands, but it's different in the sense that it doesn't walk to get around. It rolls around on these tracks.
NEELY: CHIMP has a Transformer vibe. It can go from upright to all fours in just a few seconds. Stentz and I go to the stands to watch CHIMP tackle the course.
STENTZ: All right, go CHIMP.
NEELY: Stentz has an attitude that's part sports coach, part proud dad. And weighing in at 440 pounds, CHIMP looks like a shoo-in for this course. But this turned out to be a nail-biter.
STENTZ: Don't steer into the wall.
NEELY: CHIMP makes it out of the car and through the door...
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Whoa.
NEELY: ...But then crashes to the ground in the doorway.
STENTZ: I didn't even see how that happened.
NEELY: Throughout the day, I've watched robot after robot fall and only get up with the aid of humans on the field. But something amazing happens here. After more than five minutes of slow, strange contortions...
STENTZ: Oh, that's good.
NEELY: ...CHIMP gets back up on its own. The crowd loses it.
NEELY: The team didn't get any points for that move, but recovering from a fall would come in pretty handy in the disaster zone. And CHIMP still completes all the tasks in under an hour.
STENTZ: What a bang-up job by the crew back in the garage.
NEELY: CHIMP was clearly the winner on the first day. But it had lots of trouble on the second day. It ended up coming in third place overall. A team from South Korea took home the $2 million prize. So after two days, 23 robots and dozens of falls, hopefully we're closer to having robots that can step in after disaster. Priska Neely, NPR News.
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