A sporting event where a contestant opens a door, promptly falls on their face, and then stands up again sounds like less than riveting, but on Friday some 10,000 people at the Fairplex in Pomona, California, cheered and screamed encouragement as exactly that happened. Of course, the fact that the contender was a robot called Tartan Rescue and the competition was the first day of the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Final 2015 had something to do with it. Aimed at creating robots that may one day help responders during major disasters, the two-day Challenge is host to 23 international teams competing for US$3.5 million in prizes.

The severity of the aftermath that hindered responders following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 was the inspiration for the Robotics Challenge. DRC program manager Gill Pratt compares the event to the British government's longitude competitions that spurred the development of the chronometer, or the 1795 challenge set by Bonaparte that led to the invention of tinned food. Its purpose is to explore what's possible for robots operating in human environments, create more advanced ways for humans and robots to communicate, and to encourage communication and collaboration among roboticists.

The 2015 Challenge involves eight tasks that simulate an industrial plant struck by a disaster. Each robot must drive a small car, get out, open a door and pass through, close a valve, cut a hole in the wall with a drill, either climb over debris or clear a path, and climb a flight of stairs. In addition, the robot also has to carry out a surprise task. On day one, this was flipping a switch off.

To make things even harder, exact information was kept from the teams about the course and the tasks, so they couldn't preprogram the robots. Teams were also were restricted to one hour to carry out all eight tasks, the robots had to rely solely on internal power, and if the robot fell down, it had to get up on its own or suffer a time penalty. Just to keep things interesting, the control teams were housed in a separate location and the wireless communications link was deliberately degraded and periodically interrupted.

Friday's competition was open to the public as part of DARPA's acknowledgement of the interest it has generated. Livestreaming of the event is also available for those unable to attend.

Three teams competed in each heat simultaneously with the action visible on giant television screens. Scoring was based on completing the task and the time needed with the best of two attempts.

Rescue Tartan getting back up after falling over

As the Pratt describes it, the DRC Final is more like golf than horse racing – things move slowly, then something happens and everybody applauds. The atmosphere is generally one of tension rather than excitement as people stand and lean forward in anticipation of the next occurrence. Will the robot get out of the car it just drove? Will it open the door? Or will it fall over? If so, will it get back up on its own.

It's also a competition marked by starts and stops as the machines carry out a task, then stop to make sure they were stable, or await a new command, or autonomously solve a problem. There's certainly something ironic about watching thousands of people watching three hundredweight of circuitry and metal trying to sort out a doorknob.

Meanwhile, the teams that built and programmed the robots stand by in safety vests and plastic helmets; hovering over their charges. Their job is to be on hand if the robot falls and can't get up under its own power. In that event, they reset the robot to a task's starting line to simulate a second robot going in to replace the the first. This means the robot has to do the task over and suffer a ten minute penalty.

The racetrack that hosts the DRC Finals is adequate to hold the crowd, though the sightlines are less than ideal. Behind the courses are banks of giant televisions powered by the constantly thrumming dynamo vans in the back. These screens are necessary not only to follow the action as it unfolds on separate stages, but also to see details, such as a claw moving a switch or picking up an electric drill. Along with the webcasting, this means that the DARPA camera crews are so numerous that they sometimes seem to outnumber the media. all of which makes live viewing a bit of a challenge itself.

One thing that marked Friday's events was the conservative nature of the competition as the teams developed their strategies and looked to ensure their robots remained intact. Most avoided actually letting their robots fall until the competition started, so there was still a bit of a learning curve and none were keen on being knocked out of the running on the first day.

However, the day wasn't without its moments of drama. Team Aero had a setback as its four-legged humanoid robot had trouble with the sand while walking on the driving course and fell over after getting repeatedly stuck. Later on, the spider-like Robosimian from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory ended an otherwise impressive run when it baulked at a flight of stairs.

Running Man was a crowd favorite as it dismounted with relative ease from its car, and one unfortunate Atlas robot couldn't get the door open as it whacked repeatedly at the handle with its claw.

In addition, there was an off the field incident that put a spanner in the works. During the second set of runs that morning, communications between the teams and the robots went down completely for 15 minutes. Pratt later explained that this happened when a circuit overloaded and it needed to be rebooted. Afterwards, the tasks were restarted and time credited.

At a media briefing at the end of the day, Pratt shared his observations about Friday's competition. He noted that the proceedings demonstrated the importance of robot autonomy in aiding human interaction with machines, as well as how simulation software speeds communications. As for robot design, he believes that the jury still out on humanoid versus non-humanoid robots. Humanoid robots brought speed, but lacked stability in certain tasks, while non-humanoids were more stable, but often had trouble with environments designed for humans.

At the end of the day, Tartan Rescue took first place with a score of 8 points and a time of 55:15. Nimbro Rescue came in second with 7 points and 34:00, while Team Robosimian brought in third with 7 points and 47:50 on the clock.

Stay tuned for the results of the second and final day.

For more information, visit the DRC Finals site.

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