March 08, 2015      

“I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!”

At stake: $2 million

Expect the unexpected is an inevitable part of any disaster. Humans, in the heat of the fray, need to be ready to adapt to whatever situation arises. Disasters are never neatly choreographed events needing little thinking on the fly. Quite the opposite.

Seems that DARPA is sliding that same sense of uncertainty into the paths of twenty-five onrushing humanoids that will be competing for top disaster robot in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), scheduled for June 5-6, 2015, at Fairplex in Pomona, Calif.

Now the humanoid robots taking part in the DRC have just received two unexpected DARPA rulings this week:

  • No more tethers. The robots are on their own and totally independent from any power cords, communication lines or ropes to keep them upright.
  • No helping hand from a human. If any robot takes a header during the contest, humans can’t rush their fallen machine, assist it back up and then send it on its way again.

That?s bad news for some humanoid contestants.

What could be an impending and sadly comedic scenario was enlarged last week (March 5) when DARPA announced that it will allow fourteen new humanoids into the challenge that already has eleven registrants. That’s a full 25 humanoid robots.

With SCHAFT being such an overwhelmingly convincing winner in 2013 (SCHAFT made all other robots look really bad), does anyone really think that in two years? time many true competitors have been developed?


This could end up as being the disaster of the disaster bots. How fair is that?

To be sure, if DARPA had issued similar unexpected rulings to any government contractor, you can bet that an army of lawyers and lobbyists would now be burning up telephone lines with threats of legal action.

During the trials for the DRC back in 2013, robots took clumsy-looking headers all over the place. It was painful to watch. But at least, back two years ago, emergency assistance from the sidelines from the bots’ handlers kept the winching and even chuckles at bay.

Historically, humanoid robots have been found to be basically not very good at most anything. Remember Asimo? Millions spent by Honda for a robot that’s cute but very limited.

Moravec’s paradox at work here

Moravec’s paradox is that high-level reasoning for a robot requires very little computation, but low-level sensorimotor skills require enormous computational resources.

As Moravec writes, “It is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult-level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility.”

Obviously DARPA knows all about the paradox and the Asimo-like history behind all humanoids, but this more like tough love from DARPA drawing a line in the sand forever: Cross it, and you are a true humanoid worthy of being the world’s best disaster robot; fail to cross it, and you’re a failure. So don’t waste anyone’s time and go home now months before the Pomona faceoff.

DRC program manager Gill Pratt was casually blunt about it: “The machines competing in June won’t have power cords, communication cables, or safety tethers.”

And that’s that!

Here are DARPA’s official tough-love rulings:

  • Robots will have to operate completely without wires — they may not be connected to power cords, fall arrestors, or wired communications tethers. Teams will have to communicate with their robots over a secure wireless network.
  • Teams are not allowed any physical intervention with their robot after it begins a run. If a robot falls or gets stuck, it will have to recover and continue with the tasks without any hands-on assistance. If a robot cannot sustain and recover from a fall, its run will end.
  • DARPA will intentionally degrade communications between the robots and human operators working at a distance. The idea is to replicate the conditions these robots would face going into a disaster zone. Spotty communication will force the robots to make some progress on their own during communications blackouts.