Robotics Challenge: Creating the Disaster Response of the Future

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"Many teams will run into problems while setting up their equipment at the site," predicts Kohlbrecher. "And that won't leave them much time to get everything up and running."

Eye on the Competition

Until the countdown in Miami, the team members will place all of their more sophisticated ideas and ambitious programming plans on the back burner. Now their only goal is to prevent Atlas from acting up at the crucial moment.

As a reminder of sorts, a video is being played nonstop at the training camp. It depicts the robot, as it tries to grasp the drill, jumping into the air and then collapsing. The accident occurred because programmers had inadvertently set a parameter incorrectly, leading the machine to believe that it was holding an extremely heavy weight in its hand -- which it then tried to offset with its desperate jump.

The Darmstadt engineers are keeping an anxious eye on their competitors' successes. SCHAFT, a Japanese company, has already shown that its jazzy red biped was successfully able to complete all tests. The New York Times has reported that Google also acquired the Japanese startup as part of a major offensive into robotics. The Atlas team from Florida and NASA's "Valkyrie" robot, which looks like it's ready for movie roles, are also considered frontrunners.

The Darmstadt team derives some consolation from the fact that its robot doesn't necessarily have to come in first place to be considered a success. According to the DARPA challenge rules, the top eight finishers will qualify for additional funding to compete in a repeat challenge a year from now.

It's clear that the German-American team's Atlas robot will not complete the obstacle course without errors. Nevertheless, the developers hope that many of their competitors will encounter even more problems.

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