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Lots of robots fell over during the first day of the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals
IHMC's Atlas was one of the robots that went down on the first day of the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals.
Image: DARPA

On Thursday, the day before the competition was to officially start, DARPA allowed the teams to conduct a dress rehearsal, putting their robots through the course to see how they’d do. During that dry run, not many robots fell over, so we went into Day 1 of the Finals thinking that falls would be rare. They weren’t. Lots of robots fell over, and a bunch of robots fell over multiple times. As much as nobody wanted to see a robot fall, everybody wanted to see a robot fall, and the possibility of falls (and reality of falls) kept everyone watching on the edge of our seats.

Video: Erico Guizzo/IEEE Spectrum; Footage courtesy of DARPA
Lots of robots fell over during the first day of the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals.

The impressive thing about these falls is that, although they look pretty bad, the robots were just fine (well, most of them). After humans got them back on their feet and gave them a reboot, the machines were ready to run again. Team IHMC’s Atlas fell twice during their run and it still scored 7 points (of a maximum of 8). Team MIT’s Atlas had a bad stumble out of the vehicle and also went on to complete most of the course. So it’s a good thing that robots are falling at the DRC Finals—that’s how we’re going to make them better. 

Still, yeah, it’s hard not to feel bad about these automatons. “It’s amazing how we anthropomorphize these things,” DARPA program manager Dr. Gill Pratt said yesterday at a media briefing. “It’s a pile of aluminum and copper wire and software. I don’t cheer for my laptop. But people cheer for these [robots]. And of course when it falls, we all feel terrible, ‘Uh, it got hurt.’ ”

But at the end of the day, he added, “It’s just a machine.”

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
DarkGray

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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