Advanced robotics technology showcased at DRC
The recent 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Finals saw the world's most advanced robots facing off against one another, but outside the grandstand of the Fairplex in Pomona, California, was another show as universities, companies, and DARPA itself staged an exhibition of the latest in robots and robotic technology. We took a stroll around the booths.
The 2015 DRC Finals was intended to advance robotics by inviting international teams to build and program robots capable of helping responders in a major disaster, such as a nuclear accident. However, it was also meant as a platform where the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency could introduce itself to the general public. Though DARPA has been around since 1958 and is responsible for developing what is now the Internet, outside of military and technological circles it isn't very well known.
As visitors to the DRC Finals walked toward the grandstand as they entered the grounds, they were funneled through an open-air corridor furnished with television screens and exhibits describing what DARPA is and what it does – with heavy emphasis on the agency's disaster relief technology rather than warfighting work. Along with video greetings from DARPA's chief and presentations about rescue operations were glassed exhibits of robot manipulator hands, a Boston Dynamics Cheetah robot, an alarming-looking wall-crawling robot, and an early humanoid walking robot.
Spreading out from the central corridor that formed the DARPA exhibit were the tents of 48 other organizations, companies, and universities. With two dozen teams vying for US$3.5 million in prizes, it isn't surprising that many were also well represented with everything from a modest offering of pamphlets to complex displays of duplicate robots, older versions of the competitors, components, and other projects in the works.
For those not wanting to miss any of the competition in the grandstand, there was a giant television set up giving blow by blow coverage, and even a mock up of the course for those who wanted to match their skills in person at the tasks with the challengers. There was also a Polaris exhibit, where visitors could see variations of the ATVs used by the robots in the competition.
And of course, there were more robots than you could shake a stick at. iRobot not only had a stand where it displayed bomb disposal robots, recon robots, and the domestic Roomba line, but also joined other companies in showing off the dexterity and maneuverability of robots in carrying out various tasks. Telefactor had alarmingly lifelike manipulators, GE had a swimming robot designed to inspect nuclear reactors, and AirRobot had pneumatic boxers like something out of Big Hero 6.
This is only to mention a few because there were also walking robots in an endurance challenge, a line of miniature dancing robots, robot Captain Americas, ladder-climbing robots, soda-can carrying robots, driverless cars – including the vehicle that won the DARPA Urban Challenge in 2007 – and even a robot parrot.
Then there were the robot-related exhibits, such as the Robotiq company, which provided components to many of the teams, and Ekso Bionics with its exoskeleton. Added to these were the non-terrestrial robots, such as the UAVs that flew around a huge netted-in tent, and underwater robots that swam about in tanks.
Some exhibits were a bit more tangential, such 3D printers, STEM exhibits teaching the rudiments of coding and robot building, and first responder demonstrations to show that dogs still have a place in a robotic world as well as displays of search tactics and hazmat equipment. National Geographic also screened its documentary Robots.