An international competition to pave the way for a new generation of rescue robots was dominated by a team of Japanese roboticists who were students in the laboratory of a pioneer in the design of intelligent humanoid machines.
The early roboticist, Hirochika Inoue, began work in the field almost a half-century ago at the University of Tokyo, and in the mid-1990s led the design of robots that could both walk and manipulate objects.
Students from the lab where Dr. Inoue did his early work, who then studied under Masayuki Inaba, a roboticist who was one of Dr. Inoue’s pupils, emerged as the clear leaders at the Pentagon’s Darpa Robotics Challenge 2013 Trials on Friday and Saturday.
Their team, called Schaft, completed the eight required tasks in the challenge almost flawlessly, losing points only because the wind blew a door out of its robot’s grasp and because the robot was not yet able to climb out of the vehicle after it successfully navigated an obstacle course.
The trials, held on the infield of the Homestead-Miami Speedway, included 16 teams that competed for a chance at the $2 million prize next year, and eight were selected to move on. The eight are now eligible for $1 million in support to help them prepare for the final event.
Gill Pratt, the Darpa program manager who is overseeing the Robotics Challenge, praised the scientist who paved the way for
. “Dr. Inoue is a remarkable guy who really is the father of a lot of the stuff in Japan,” he said.
He also noted that the team of Japanese roboticists had a striking work ethic. Starting from an agency handout, the team had built three prototypes and were already testing the machines when Darpa officials visited Tokyo last summer. Dr. Pratt said the officials were expecting to see only plans.
“When we got there to do the site review and walked into their lab, we were amazed,” he said.
The students recently left the university to enter the Darpa contest, and created the company Schaft. It has since been purchased by Google as part of the company’s new robotics initiative.
The Darpa event has been described as a Grand Challenge to open the way for an era in which a generation of mobile robots will aid in disaster situations, traveling and working where humans cannot. The research agency is trying to develop systems that could be used in situations like the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The fact that there were no robots that could quickly be called upon in that emergency led to consternation in Japan, a nation that has prided itself on its advanced robots.