South Korean Team Earns Top Prize at US Department of Defense Robotics Challenge

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by Patrick Madaj
South Korea's robot would go on to take first prize at the US Department of Defense's DARPA challenge. Image: Flickr user Office of Naval Research.

Team KAIST of South Korea took first prize at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Robotics Challenge, the finals of which took place June 5-6 in Pomona, California. Representing the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, the team beat out 23 other groups from the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong, as well as others from Europe.

The grueling three-year Challenge was overseen by DARPA, the technological development wing of the US Department of Defense, which was inspired to launch the contest after witnessing the challenges in responding to the 2011 Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster. DARPA developers believe that the damage might have been reduced had there been robots capable of performing tasks in highly irradiated areas. The eight tasks assigned to robots within the Challenge thus reflected those performed by crews following similar disasters, such as removing walls, tightening valves, and even driving.

Though the teams were competing with each other, the Challenge also offered an opportunity for developers on both sides of the Pacific to cooperate. DARPA helped spur innovation by funding and supplying parts to several of the Asian teams competing in the Challenge. Groups that received high levels of government support were required to submit detailed descriptions of their robots’ operational systems, and all competitors were encouraged to use and improve the simulator program used in preparation of the Challenge, providing DARPA with insight on how to build on existing robot and disaster simulation designs. American tech giant Google helped fund developers from the Japanese robotics company Schaft Inc., which Google acquired, along with six other small robotics startups, in 2013. Schaft and Google later dropped out of the competition last summer due to Google’s desire to focus on commercial robot projects. Several teams in the competition, including some from Asia, were still able to use Google’s Atlas robot, but each developed custom software and code to run the machines.

With the Challenge now finished, DARPA plans to continue inspiring ideas and discussion on robotics through future events, such as the “Wait, What?” technology forum the agency will host in September.

Patrick Madaj is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and an undergraduate student at the University of Oklahoma.