A team of robotics experts from Japan was clearly head and shoulders above everybody else at the Pentagon’s Darpa Robotics Challenge 2013 Trials on Friday and Saturday, an international competition which was pushing to create a new generation of rescue robots. This team is made up of students who are studying inUniversity of Tokyo’s robotics lab, a world-renowned pioneer in mechanics and practical robotics.
The University of Tokyo robotics lab gained international renown through the pioneering efforts of Dr. Hirochika Inoue, in the mid ‘90s, when he started work on the design of robots that could both walk and manipulate objects. But it was the generations who followed Inoue’s steps who shined at the Pentagon’s robotics tilt. Their Japanese team, calling themselves Team Schaft, went through all the tasks required of their robotic creations almost perfectly, losing points only because the wind blew a door out of their robot’s hold and because their robotic creation was not able to climb out of a vehicle after it successfully navigated an obstacle course. The competition was held on the infield of the Homestead-Miami Speedway and included 16 teams who were competing for a chance at a US$2 million prize next year. From the 16 teams, eight qualified for the finals event, also taking home with them a US$1 million grant as support for their preparations for the final event.
Gill Pratt, the program manager for Darpa who is overseeing the robotics challenge competition, remembered Inoue’s influence on Japanese robotics. “Dr. Inoue is a remarkable guy who really is the father of a lot of the stuff in Japan,” he said. Pratt said that he was also impressed with the Japanese team’s work ethic. Starting from the time they were handed funds, the Japanese team had already built three prototypes for testing when Darpa officials visited Tokyo last summer. Pratt said that the most they were expecting to see were plans for the robots. “When we got there to do the site review and walked into their lab,” he said, “we were amazed.” The students recently left the university to enter Darpa’s trials and created the company Schaft. The company has already been bought by Google as part of its new robotics initiative.