It is 12 March 2011. A tsunami has just slammed into the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. The reactors are in partial meltdown releasing explosive hydrogen gas that must be vented. But radiation levels inside the plant are too high for humans to get near the valve. The hydrogen explodes, badly damaging reactor buildings, releasing radiation into the environment and making a bad situation much worse. 

Could a robot have reached the critical valve? Not with 2011 technology. But the crisis inspired the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to set up its Robotics Challenge. The final showdown takes place in June 2015, when robots must perform feats that would have averted the Fukushima explosions. 

This handsome Atlas (above) is one of the entrants. 

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The challenge

The Robotics Challenge is a rescue-robot octathlon – eight tests of the skill, strength and dexterity a robot needs to perform to make its way through a wrecked building.

Last December mid-competition trials gave the first glimpse of the contestants in action. For the 16 teams competing, the results decided how DARPA would apportion millions of dollars of funding to support each robot’s development up to the June finals.

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The driving test

First up? The driving test. A robot needs to get to a disaster zone fast and without exhausting its batteries on the way. But the trial contestants found piloting a vehicle around an obstacle course particularly tricky. Despite his sure grip and steely gaze not even THOR (above) succeeded. 

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Walking the walk

In a disaster zone fallen masonry is just one of the obstacles likely to lie in the rescue bot’s path. An Atlas robot (above) carefully steps its way across a jumbled pile to successfully complete the terrain challenge.

Robotics firm Boston Dynamics developed the Atlas especially for the DARPA Challenge. Of the 16 teams competing in the trials, seven are using Atlas robots, loading their own software. This Atlas was fitted with Houston-based TRACLabs software and came sixth in the trials.

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Clearing a path

The rescue robot arrives at the stricken industrial plant only to find the building’s entrance blocked by fallen debris. Japanese robot Schaft (above) deftly swats aside the heap of wooden and metal bars. It not only won at this test, it was the overall champion of the competition.

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Opening doors

Rescue robots must be able to negotiate doors. That might sound simple, but holding open a self-closing door while shuffling through is a complex manoeuvre for a robot.

Schaft (above) shows off his remarkable reach as he opens and prepares to walk through door one of the three-door challenge. This was one of the few events Schaft didn’t ace. A gust of wind slammed a subsequent door shut in its face. However, after the overall win Tokyo-based Schaft Inc. was snapped up by Google as part of the company’s spending spree on robot and artificial intelligence firms. As one door closes, another door opens.

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Upwardly mobile

Mastering a standard industrial ladder proved tricky for some including Trooper (above left), an Atlas robot run by a team from technology company Lockheed Martin. Trooper teetered on the first step before slipping off to end the event dangling ignominiously from its safety tether, which all the robots in the trials had fitted. 

The Florida-based Institute for Human and Machine Cognition’s Atlas robot would not win any awards for craftsmanship, but it did cut a roughly triangular hole in the wall as required (above right) – winning the round and helping the team to place second overall.

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Fighting fires

Chimp (above), developed by robot-research powerhouse Carnegie Mellon University, gives us a good view of its innovative arms as it drags a fire hose towards a water outlet. As well as a robotic hand, each arm is fitted with tracks. When Chimp comes to tricky terrain it can drop to all fours and motor its way across. This makes it much more stable on uneven ground. But the system’s extra bulk and weight proved quite a hindrance on the ladder challenge where it struggled even to mount the first rung. Overall, Chimp came third.

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Slow motion rescue

For those robots that make it this far through the mock disaster zone the final challenge is the crucial one – opening the valve to vent (imaginary) explosive hydrogen gas. NASA’s RoboSimian (above), one of the few non-humanoid robots in the trial, finished fifth overall. Its short stature and four-legged gait was a boon over rough ground but a bit of a handicap when it came to driving and ladder-climbing. 

All failed the driving test, although many of the robots successfully completed many of the subsequent tasks. But they were slow, taking up to 30 minutes for each assignment. For the finals next June the entire course must be completed in 60 minutes.