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These are the robots competing to one day save your life

It could save your life one day.
  • Mike Murphy
By Mike Murphy

Technology editor

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

During the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, robots were unable to turn a series of valves that would have relieved pressure on the reactors. The pressure buildup eventually led to the devastating explosion. Now, engineers are competing to build the robots that will help to prevent future disasters.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will host the finals of its robotics challenge in Pomona, California, this weekend. Twenty-five teams from across the world will be competing for $3 million in prize money to show that their robot can complete a series of tasks they might encounter during a natural or man-made disaster.

DARPA told Quartz that many of the tasks are directly inspired by things that happened at Fukushima. Each robot will have to pass through an obstacle course of challenges that a robot might have to deal with in a disaster situation. The robots will get a point for navigating through each of these steps:

  • Driving a car
  • Turning the car left and right
  • Getting out of the car
  • Going through a door
  • Turning a valve (like the one at the Fukushima plant)
  • (Secret step even DARPA’s communications director doesn’t know)
  • Traverse a pile of rubble
  • Remove a different pile of rubble
  • Walk up some steps

Today, the teams will be conducting a dry run on the course, which will be used to determine seeding for Friday’s run. Saturday’s run will be determined by Friday’s results, with the best performers going later in the day, rather like a golf tournament. Each team will have an hour each day to complete the tasks on the obstacle course, and the overall winner will be declared Saturday evening.

Many of the teams will be using modified versions of the Atlas robot, built by Google’s Boston Dynamics, with funding from DARPA itself.

These robots, or ones like them, may one day save our lives; we might as well get to know them. To that end, Quartz has chosen some of its favorite robots (based mostly on coolness of appearance) from all the teams competing in this weekend’s challenge.

Team Aero DRC robot

DARPA Robotics Challenge

Team Aero, from Japan, has built a robot with two arms and four legs. Hopefully these robots were not the inspiration.

Team RoboSimian

NASA made a monkey bot that’s all arms.


Japan’s National Institute of Industrial Science and Technology has built a robot that looks like a cross between the country’s beloved manga robots and the movie robot Chappie.

Team Nedo-Hydra

DARPA Robotics Challenge

Four Japanese universities combined their forces to build this entirely new humanoid robot that’s nearly 6 feet tall and looks even more terrifying without its casings on.

Team iHMC Robotics

DARPA Robotics Challenge

Florida’s Institute for Human and Machine Cognition built this robot, based on the Atlas robot. It’s partially sponsored by Amazon, but we’re hoping the company won’t use it to deliver our packages in the future.


DARPA Robotics Challenge

We’re a little disappointed that this robot with tank treads on its arms and legs from Carnegie Mellon University is not actually wearing any tartan.

Team Walk-Man

DARPA Robotics Challenge

Hopefully this robot, built by the Italian Institute of Technology, fares better in the competition than its namesake is doing in the portable audio market.


DARPA Robotics Challenge

This robot, built in partnership by the University of Pennsylvania, Virginia Tech, and the University of California, Los Angeles, has some great sleeve tattoos. Unfortunately, it does not have a mystical hammer or the ability to control lightning.

Team SNU

Seoul National University’s robot is wearing a hat. It thinks it’s people.

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