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Robots to Battle for $3.5M in DARPA Challenge

The DARPA Robotics Challenge kicks off in June in Pomona, California.

In June, as the NBA and NHL championships are decided, robotic competitors will face off in the finals of the DARPA Robotics Challenge.

At stake: $3.5 million in total prize money, with $2 million going to the first-prize winner. The robots will have one hour to complete eight tasks, which will include driving 100 meters to a simulated disaster site, cutting a hole in a wall, climbing a ladder, and a special mystery task that won't be revealed to teams beforehand. While readers might imagine a squad of Terminator-style robots leaping over obstacles, DARPA tried to lower expectations.

"You should expect to see a lot of robots falling down," Gill Pratt, program manager for the DARPA Robotics Challenge, said on Wednesday during a media briefing.

There will be 25 teams competing, half of them from the United States. Japan, Korea and Germany will also be represented with a total of 10 teams between them. This will be the final challenge in a long process that started with a virtual challenge in 2013, a physical trial run later that year, and now the finals in Pomona, California, on June 5-6.

Overall, DARPA has spent $96.6 million on the Robotics Challenge. The hope is that the technology developed by these teams could eventually help robots enter disaster zones like Nepal after its 7.8-magnitude earthquake. Sadly, they don't have the dexterity and autonomy to do rescue work just yet.

"I want to be very realistic about what stage we're in right now," Pratt said. "These are prototypes that are meant to advance the technology and it might be 10 years from now until they're out in the field."

DARPA will be purposefully sabotaging the link between teams and their robots. At the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it was communication problems caused by heavy radiation shielding and power outages that caused a snake-shaped robot from Hitachi and GE Nuclear Energy to fail before completing its task. Teams in the competition will face communication outages of up to one minute to test how well their robots deal with similar situations.

With Stephen Hawking again ringing the warning bell over killer robots, Pratt also addressed questions about whether people should worry about technology from the challenge eventually finding its way onto the battlefield.

"As with any technology, we can’t control what it’s going to be used for," he said, adding that "it’s up to society to decide that."