clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

To Watch This Weekend: Humanoid Robots Battle at DARPA Robotics Challenge

If you're lucky, maybe a robot will keel over while you're watching.


Looking for some excitement on this summer weekend? How about tuning into the livestream of a competition between robots simulating disaster response tasks. If you’re lucky, maybe a robot will keel over while you’re watching. Some are calling it the Super Bowl of robotics.

This weekend’s DARPA Robotic Challenge pits a group of two dozen robots against each other to open and close a valve, cut through a wall, get out of a vehicle and do other things inspired by the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster. It’s held on a horse racing track that shut down last year in Pomona, Calif., and has attracted a large crowd of students and enthusiasts. On the line is a top prize of $2 million.

As a long-distance viewer, one thing you’ll notice right away is the robots — which are commanded remotely but make some autonomous tactical decisions — often move so slowly you wonder if the video has frozen. If it’s any consolation, they are dramatically faster and more capable than the trials event 18 months ago.

But that’s not to say it’s boring TV. Here’s a compilation of robots falling down rather spectacularly from day one made by IEEE Spectrum:

On Friday, the only team that scored eight out of eight points was Carnegie Mellon’s Tartan Rescue, whose robot is nicknamed CHIMP. It got a standing ovation as it finished the course. Along with the other leaders, it will compete at 5 pm PT Saturday.

Last year Google pulled its trials-winning entry, Schaft, out of the competition, with speculation that it wanted to clear a way for other teams and/or to avoid the prospect of accepting military funding should it win. But the company’s presence still looms, as multiple teams are competing with Atlas robots from the Google-owned Boston Dynamics.

Beyond the practical application of disaster relief, the event is all about futurism and optimism and new frontiers. As the DARPA site described one moment from earlier in the week, “During its late morning run, Team Kaist’s DRC-Hubo got out of its Polaris, gracefully bent down onto its knees, and assumed what appeared to be a respectful bow before a huddle of blue-vested Team Kaist members. It was an emotional moment of human-machine interaction, one that suggested the present chasm between human- and robot-kind stands at least a chance of being bridged, and that a future of seamless biomechanical partnership may indeed be possible.”

But here’s a cute video from one competitor proving humans still beat out robots for a sense of humor:

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.