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At robot contest, MIT team places 4th

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — An international competition to pave the way for a new generation of rescue robots was dominated by a team of Japanese roboticists who were students in the laboratory of a pioneer in the design of humanoid machines.

Hirochika Inoue began work in the field almost a half-century ago at the University of Tokyo and in the mid-1990s led the design of robots that could walk and manipulate objects.

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Students from the lab where Inoue did his early work, who then studied under Masayuki Inaba, a roboticist who was one of Inoue’s pupils, emerged as clear leaders at the Pentagon’s DARPA Robotics Challenge 2013 Trials on Friday and Saturday. The event was sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

IHMC Robotics from the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition placed second. Third place went to Tartan Rescue, developed by the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

Fourth place was awarded to a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The fifth-place team, RoboSimian, designed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, would have fared better, but DARPA judges disallowed a clever solution the team had come up with for one of the tasks.

The number one team, called Schaft, completed the eight required tasks almost flawlessly, losing points only because the wind blew a door out of its robot’s grasp and because the robot was not yet able to climb out of the vehicle after it navigated an obstacle course.

The trials included 16 teams that competed for a chance at the $2 million prize next year. Eight were selected to move on, and they are now eligible for $1 million in support to help them prepare for the final event.

Gill Pratt, the DARPA program manager, praised the scientist who paved the way for Team Schaft.

“Dr. Inoue is a remarkable guy who really is the father of a lot of the stuff in Japan,” he said.

DARPA called the event a Grand Challenge, intended to open the way for an era in which a generation of mobile robots will aid in disaster situations, traveling and working where humans cannot. The research agency is trying to develop systems to use in situations like the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

DARPA officials stressed the awards were not final but are pending contract negotiations with the US government.

In the debris-clearing test, in which the robots were supposed to remove a simulated pile of 2-by-4-inch lumber and a metal girder piece by piece, the humans on Team RoboSimian decided that removing the entire pile of debris at once would be the most efficient way toward the maximum points.

The RoboSimian Robot was almost successful, but it did not get all of the material across a required line until after the DARPA officials had declared they had run out of time.

That suggested there might still be room for human ingenuity in the coming robot era.

“That was our goal, to exploit human intelligence and give humans a tool,” said Max Bajracharya, the group leader and a member of the technical staff at JPL.

Although the robots were moving in slow motion, there was agreement the DARPA event was a watershed in the evolution of the technology.

Marc Raibert, whose company, Boston Dynamics, demonstrated two of its agile and mobile robots, said he believed that the event merely signified a point in the evolution of a new industry.

Still, he said, it was an event that would be remembered.

“This was a Woodstock for robots,” he said.

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