Winner of US government robotics contest may not benefit US

This June in California, robots will be tested on their ability to perform search and rescue missions quickly, even as communications fail. The machines will have no human help if they get stuck.

Team NimbRo Rescue from Germany will participate in the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals.
Source: DARPA

The test will take place at the Robotics Challenge Finals run by the research arm of the Defense Department, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA. A total of $3.5 million in U.S. prize money will be handed out. However, the U.S. will not necessarily have access to the winners' intellectual property.

Competing in the challenge June 5-6 in the city of Pomona will be 12 U.S. teams from places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, Lockheed Martin and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. They will be joined by foreign teams from Italy, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China.

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In all, 25 robots will face off in a series of tasks, including one surprise task that their human handlers won't know about in advance. The robots will have to be completely wireless. If they fall down, they will have to independently right themselves. They will have only one hour to complete the challenge. In addition, communications between robots and humans will be only intermittent, in order to simulate reality.

"Communication gets very poor during disasters," said Gill Pratt, who is running the event.

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Winning the contest doesn't necessarily translate into direct upside for DARPA. The winning team will receive $2 million from the agency, which will also award $1.5 million to runners-up. But only those teams that received DARPA funding earlier in their robot development will have to share their intellectual property with the government. The only teams that have gotten such funding are those from the United States.

Pratt said DARPA has given those teams anywhere from $1.5 million to $3 million to develop their projects, and it has also provided some of the software-only teams with free robots from Boston Dynamics.

That means that if a foreign team wins the challenge, they will win the prize money and not have to share their technology.

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"As this technology becomes increasingly global, cooperating with the United States in areas where there is mutual concern, such as disaster response and homeland security, stands to benefit every country involved," said Pratt.

One team which has dropped out of the competition is Schaft, a Tokyo-based company that was purchased by Google. Schaft scored higher than any other U.S. team during the trials leading up to the finals. The tech giant reportedly wants to avoid working with the Pentagon on robots, even as it increases investment in robot technology. Google also owns Boston Dynamics, creator of the robots that DARPA is providing some contestants.

When the finals take place in June, spectators can expect to see four robots compete at the same time, "kind of like a horse race," said Pratt.

The hope is that DARPA's support of early technologies will "make robots and human beings work together in doing what they do best." That involves robots acting capably in dangerous places, while leaving the tough judgment calls to humans, even during communications blackouts.

"Robots must somehow communicate information about the world they see to the human beings, despite the interruptions," said Pratt, who added that human beings must then relay commands, but "at a sufficiently high level, without micromanaging."