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Lending a Hand

The metaphor of a high-stakes horse race pervades the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals. The robots are running the courses on the once-bustling Fairplex race track where for more than seven decades, and until just last year, Californians had been placing bets on their favorite horses. With its individual robot preparation bays, each one buzzing with teams tending to their mechanoelectric prides and joys, Building 9 on the Fairplex complex has all the trappings of a trackside horse stable. Inside the grandstands, the crenelated betting counters, though inactive now, almost beckon for DRC attendees to place their wagers on the robots that, come Saturday evening, will win, place or show.

Amidst this context of competition, however, is an infusion of camaraderie, sharing, and generosity. Last year, as DRC teams were in the thick of getting the hardware, software, operational protocols and other necessities for their two days of runs, Team MIT "open sourced" some of the control and motion planning tools it created, noted team member Robin Deits. He says another software release to the community, this time software for a primary interface for controlling robots, will likely happen sometime after the Challenge when he and his colleagues have time to "clean it up" and make it more generally presentable.

Team IHMC also has been sharing software, particularly in the walking and locomotion categories, remarked team member Alex Graber-Tilton as he sat on a sofa his team brought with them to their Building 9 bay. "The idea was to let other teams have our experience," he said." That way teams that don't want to spend their time working on locomotion can concentrate on other things." And that is the sort of division of labor required to advance multi-faceted technologies such as disaster response robotics.

The sharing isn't just of the software kind, Graber-Tilton added. The well-equipped IMHC team, which has its own copy of the Polaris electric vehicle the robots are driving on the course, has loaned out its Polaris to others in Building 9. The lending of hands has gotten downright literal. "Team Trak Labs let us borrow a hand when one of our hands broke," Graber-Tilton said, adding "that there's been a lot of generosity going on in this entire competition." Both teams adopted the Boston Dynamics' Atlas platform for their DRC entries.

It would be hard to embrace the ethic of community-building within the field of robotics more avidly than does Dennis Hong, leader of Team THOR. "This competition is called the DARPA Robotics Challenge. It is not called the DARPA Robotics competition," Hong said. "We are not really fighting against other teams. We are all together fighting against the big problem of trying to develop technology that one day will save humanity."

If the betting counters were still open in the Fairplex Grandstands, Hong might not hesitate to put down all of his money on the 24-team collective that has been occupying Building 9. "You will see in the future, all of the important people, all the breakthroughs in robotics, everything will be tying into this very place at this very moment." To be sure, it's an exuberant and optimistic sentiment, but Hong and his DRC comrades suspect that they indeed are making robotics history this week.