If robots had their own Olympic games, it might look something like the DARPA Robotics Challenge.
Some of the best and brightest of the world's robotics teams have converged on Pomona to compete in the two-day challenge, featuring a grueling obstacle course that will test both the hardware and software of these prototypes.
Up for grabs: a top prize of $2 million -- and a chance to showcase technological developments that could one day lead to rescue robots that can be sent out to natural and man-made disasters.
The event, which takes place at the Fairplex on Friday and Saturday, is free and open to the public. (There is a charge for parking.) The international challenge has drawn some two dozen teams from across the United States and all over the globe, including Italy, Germany, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. Two local teams will be competing: One from UCLA and the other from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Each contender will have an hour to finish the obstacle course, but the winner who completes the most tasks in the shortest amount of time will take home the top prize of $2 million. Second place will earn $1 million, and third will get $500,000.
The robots will have to complete eight tasks, including: drive a car, open a door, turn a valve, use a power tool to drill into dry wall, navigate rubble and climb some steps. These may sound simple for a human, but they're much tougher for a robot.
The prototypes are partly autonomous -- that is, they can complete small, simple jobs on their own -- but by and large, they'll require guidance from their human handlers.
The challenge, which began in 2012, was inspired by the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, when a tsunami triggered by an earthquake led to explosions at the plant that spread radioactive contamination over a 20-kilometer radius.
If rescue operators had had robots that could have been quickly deployed to the radiation-soaked plant before the explosions occurred, "that particular disaster could have had a lid put on it so that it would not have been nearly as bad," said DARPA program manager Gill Pratt, the force behind the DARPA Robotics Challenge.
DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is a U.S. Department of Defense agency that seeks to develop emerging (and far-into-the-future) technologies.
At the Fairplex, visitors can also check out an expo featuring a mechanical menagerie, including a water tank filled with swimming robots and an "aviary" full of flying ones.
For those who can't make it to the Fairplex either Friday or Saturday, the competition is being live-streamed online now.
Stay tuned for more on the DARPA competition, in next week's Great Reads.