I Admit It, I Would Totally Flunk an Obstacle Course for Robots
Man can’t beat machine in DARPA’s robot contest
Man is superior to any machine, I reassured myself, as I contemplated whether I could survive an obstacle course for robots.
On Dec. 20, a bunch of Terminator-like humanoid robots, built by 17 teams from around the world, will descend on the Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida for the Robotics Challenge trials.
Sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s futuristic tech brain trust, the Robotics Challenge aims to test how well smart machines can deal with natural and man-made disasters.
DARPA’s test case is the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster in 2011, in which radiation prevented workers from turning a valve that would have vented hydrogen that eventually exploded and wrecked the facility.
To select the fittest robots, DARPA created a Darwinian obstacle course resembling the hazards of a Fukushima-like disaster. Coincidentally, a robot tough enough to fix a nuclear meltdown could also function as a weapon.
There are eight tasks that must be performed by the robots, which have 30 minutes for each task. They will be controlled by their operators, but will also experience sporadic communications disruptions to test their ability to function autonomously.
These are tasks that are supposed to be challenging for machines. But how well could a human—and a writer like me, in particular—handle them? Let’s examine the tasks in order.
Task #1: Drive and Exit from Utility Vehicle
DARPA describes this as “the hardest single task and the one that requires the most robot-human interaction.”
“The operators must direct the robots to drive the vehicle safely despite occasional communications disruptions,” the science agency states. “Getting out of the driver’s seat poses significant strength and dexterity challenges for the robots.”
Heck, I’ve been driving for 30 years. Even better, I’ve been getting in and out of vehicles—although not the driver’s seat—by myself since I was four years gold, and haven’t lost any body parts.
Task #2: Walk Across Rough Terrain
“The robots must maintain their balance and identify safe routes for placement of limbs,” according to DARPA.
Considering the state of the sidewalks in my town, I successfully complete this challenge every day. Nothing extraordinary here.
Task #3: Remove Debris from Doorway
“Robots must demonstrate a wide range of motion, in addition to balance and strength, to clear a path forward,” DARPA states.
And the problem is … ? Yesterday I cleared a path from my office doorway to my computer. ‘Nuff said.
Task #4: Open Series of Doors
“Moving the doors in an arc challenges the robots’ perception and dexterity,” DARPA warns. “The robots must figure out how to align and move themselves as they open each door.”
I can open doors, and even close them without my foot being in the way. Is this the toughest challenge you can think of, DARPA?
Task #5: Climb Industrial Ladder
“To avoid falls, the robots must safely navigate the ladder and maintain their balance as they climb,” according to the agency. “Strength is required to stop a fall.”
Not true. Strength won’t necessarily prevent a fall, as this biological unit discovered when cleaning his gutters. Score one for the robots.
Task #6: Cut Through Wall
“Using power tools tests the robots’ strength, dexterity and ability to perceive their environment,” DARPA notes. “The robots must also simultaneously apply rigid force to hold a tool, yet demonstrate the flexibility to smoothly manipulate it.”
“Smooth operation” and “power tools” are incompatible for some organic lifeforms, myself included. Robots win again.
Task #7: Carry and Connect Fire Hose
“The robots must identify the standpipe and then transport a bulky, non-rigid item (the fire hose) to it,” according to DARPA. “The robots must then have sufficient dexterity and strength to attach the hose to a standpipe and open the spigot.”
Considering that my garden hose resembles a pretzel by the time I finish rewinding it, I’m not sure I could extinguish a campfire, let alone a blazing nuclear reactor. The automatons pull farther ahead.
Task #8: Locate and Close Leaking Valves
“The robots must identify the valves, determine which ones are open and have sufficient range of motion to turn the valve wheels in an arc to close them,” is how DARPA describes the ultimate challenge.
God help us if the only thing saving us from nuclear disaster is my plumbing skills. If they can do this, the robots have far exceeded what I’m capable of.
In the end, I could perform some tasks better than robots, but the robots have the edge in others—especially the more difficult and dangerous ones. Of course, this doesn’t take into account mortal hazards such as radiation and toxic fumes, which obviously advantage the machines over flesh and blood.
Next time a nuclear reactor blows, I’ll stay home and let the robots do the heavy lifting.