The Humanoids Are Here: The Walking, Climbing, Driving Robots of the DRC

It’s entirely possible that the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) will be a complete mess. The goal of this two-year Pentagon-funded competition is beyond ambitious—to develop robotic first responders, able to operate in Fukushima-like situations, human-centric environments that have become disaster zones too lethal for humans. But so far, the competition has occurred almost entirely out of sight, as teams around the world build and test sophisticated robots in labs, and with simulation software. The first competitive event in the DRC, a simulator-only event called the Virtual Robotics Challenge, played out this past summer with little fanfare or attention. The VRC was a qualifier, of sorts, to determine which teams would be able to use one of seven Atlas robots (built by Boston Dynamics and paid for by DARPA). On December 20th and 21st the DRC will begin in earnest, with the physical trials being held at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.

Again, it could be a disaster. As more than a dozen robots make their mostly autonomous way across an obstacle course, attempting a series of eight tasks that range from the merely challenging (traversing rough terrain) to the potentially ridiculous (driving a Polaris utility vehicle), failure isn’t an option—it’s an inevitability. Motors will fail, actuators will break, and control algorithms will send machines lurching off-target or off-mission.

It’s the potential for disaster that makes the DRC so exciting. Will anyone complete all eight tasks? Will the competition end in wreckage? And even if this week’s trials are nothing but synthetic slapstick, redemption is just a year away—the best-performing teams will proceed to the finals in December 2014 and its top prize of $2M, where the tasks will be even harder, and many of the bots will be upgraded.

Before they’re deployed for our amusement, here are the robots of the DRC.