MIT, WPI robots outperformed in Calif. contest

Robots were tasked with driving a vehicle, climbing stairs, opening doors, turning a valve, and moving over rough terrain. Team WPI-CMU (pictured), a joint effort of WPI and Carnegie Mellon, took seventh place.
Robots were tasked with driving a vehicle, climbing stairs, opening doors, turning a valve, and moving over rough terrain. Team WPI-CMU (pictured), a joint effort of WPI and Carnegie Mellon, took seventh place.

Human-shaped robots from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lost to machines from South Korea, Florida, and Pennsylvania in a Pentagon-sponsored showdown held over the weekend at a Pomona, Calif., fairground.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Robotics Challenge offered a total of $3.5 million in prizes for robots capable of working in dangerous environments, such as burning buildings or damaged nuclear power plants.

Team Kaist, sponsored by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, took home the first-place prize of $2 million with a robot named DRC-Hubo. The Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition’s Team IHMC Robotics and its robot, Running Man, won the $1 million second prize, while $500,000 in third-place money went to Tartan Rescue, a team sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University of Pittsburgh, and its robot, named CHIMP.

Both Massachusetts teams finished out of the money. Team MIT took sixth place. Team WPI-CMU, a joint effort of WPI and Carnegie Mellon, ranked seventh. But the leaders of the WPI and MIT teams hardly sounded like losers.

“I think it went fantastically,” said Scott Kuindersma, an MIT postdoctoral associate. “I thought it was amazing and inspiring, and it really gave the public a good picture of what the state of the art in robotics is.”

A WPI robotics professor, Michael Gennert, was just as pumped. “It went great,” he said. “The fact that we made it here and did so well is a very great thrill to us.”

Contestants were expected to carry out a series of eight tasks, including driving a vehicle, climbing stairs, opening doors, turning a valve, and moving over rough terrain.

The first three finishers completed all eight assignments and were ranked by how quickly they completed the course. Team Kaist dominated in the standings, by finishing all eight activities in just under 45 minutes, six minutes quicker than the second-place Florida team was able to finish.

The MIT and WPI teams each managed just seven of the eight tasks. Both fell short on the same assignment: cutting a hole in a wall. The MIT robot fell when climbing out of a vehicle and broke one of its arms. The robot completed the other tasks with one arm but could not operate the power drill used to pierce the wall.

The showdown drew about 8,500 spectators to the Pomona fairground, a measure of the public’s fascination with robotics. But even the best of the machines are not nearly as agile and fast-moving as the robots in Hollywood movies.

And they’ll have to get a lot better before robots can be put to work in life-or-death situations.

“This competition has shown the potential of robotics for disaster response,” Gennert said. “It also shows what work needs to be done yet. We are a ways away from using robots in disaster response.”

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at h_bray@globe.com.
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