Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on July 1, 2015.

IN 2011, LESS THAN AN HOUR AFTER a magnitude 9.0 earthquake cut power to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, a 45-foot-high tsunami crashed into the facility, wrecking the back-up generators and other electrical equipment. Steam built up as water in the reactors boiled away, and high radiation levels prevented workers from making critical repairs and getting to valves to release the mounting pressure. Within days, three reactors exploded, sending deadly radiation shooting into the air and sea.

If plant workers had had access to robots capable of traversing debris, opening valves, and performing other critical repairs following the earthquake and tsunami, the disaster might have been prevented—but that level of robotic dexterity and capability did not exist. Those limitations became the impetus behind the 2012 creation of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, which in 2013 launched a two-year competition that concluded in June. Funded with $3.5 million in prize money from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the competition aimed to accelerate robotic technology for disaster response.

Competitions like DARPA are invaluable because they force engineers to focus on problems first responders and the military need solved, said Adam Jacoff, a robotics research engineer at the National Intitute of Standards and Technology and chairman of the international RoboCupRescue robot competitions. “We’re effectively using robot competitions to help refine, validate, and disseminate the standards,” he said. “Test methods hold the engineers’ feet to the fire.”

The 23 teams that competed at the DARPA finals, held June 5–6 in Pomona, California, were tasked with building battery-powered robots that could complete a circuit of eight difficult tasks. The robots had to drive a vehicle through an obstacle course; get out of the vehicle; walk up to, open, and walk through a door; turn valves; walk over rubble; trip circuit breakers; cut a hole in a wall; and climb stairs. The robots, many of them humanoid and bipedal, were timed in how fast they could finish the course and received a point for each task completed. Teams controlled their robots wirelessly, though the robots were also able to complete some basic tasks on their own.

Team Kaist of Daejeon, Republic of Korea, took first place and the $2 million top prize with its DRC-Hubo robot, which completed all eight tasks in just over 44 minutes. A robot named Running Man, designed by a team from Pensacola, Florida, took second place and $1 million for completing all eight tasks in just over 50 minutes.

“This is the end of the DARPA Robotics Challenge but only the beginning of a future in which robots can work alongside people to reduce the toll of disasters," DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar said following the competition. "I know that the community that the DARPA challenge has helped to catalyze will do great things in the years ahead."

JESSE ROMAN is staff writer for NFPA Journal.