Robot design isn't easy. Materials science, mechanical engineering, biology, physics, and machine learning (plus other disciplines too numerous to mention) are all combined in the creation of robotics. As such, it's difficult to evaluate the benefits of a particular robot based on its design alone. Instead, we make them compete.
Competition has recently become a driving factor in the field of advanced robotics. From drone racing to DARPA to Google, competitions have been used to expand the field of robotics in a number of ways. Let's look at some of the ways that robotics competitions have been used to advance the sciences over the years.
The next big thing in robot competitions is almost certainly going to be drone racing. This competition involves racers strapping cameras to the front of quadcopter drones in order to create a sort of virtual cockpit, then taking flight at high speed through a maze of obstacles.
Drone racing leagues are beginning to pop up around the country, and the implications for advanced robotic innovation are tremendous. Around the turn of last century, the rise of automobile racing produced inventions such as traction control, the active suspension, and reinforced plastics. If drone racing creates similar refinements, there could be positive implications for many other industries.
DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration) has been encouraging the growth of both humanoid robots and autonomous cars. The first DARPA Grand Challenge for autonomous cars began in 2004—and nearly ended there. Competitors were required to send their cars down a 150-mile course in the Mojave desert, but even the best performer broke down after less than a tenth of that distance.
Here's the thing, however. Scientists don't give up. The very next year, not one, but five vehicles successfully completed the course. A little over ten years after that, the first fully autonomous cars are already picking up passengers.
The Lunar X-Prize
Competition has often been used to fund the world’s great voyages. For example, Charles Lindbergh's history-making flight was actually an attempt to win the Orteig Prize. This was a cash reward of $25,000 (nearly $350K in today's money), established by the French hotelier Raymond Orteig, for the first trans-Atlantic aviator.
The Lunar X-Prize, sponsored by Google, is much in the same vein. This is a primarily spaceflight oriented challenge, but it does involve advanced robotics (like so much of space exploration), so we’ll allow it. In its simplest form, this is a challenge for a commercial enterprise to build a probe, land it successfully on the moon, and beam back some data.
How does this involve robotics? First, we know that even the simplest robotic lander needs to incorporate sophisticated autonomous programming in order to land successfully on its own. Second, Google is awarding extra money for companies that go above and beyond. As such, a German company is building a lunar rover with the goal of landing, rolling around, and taking photos of the Apollo 17 landing site.
When you give scientists a goal, a target, and competitors, magic seems to happen. It's rarely about the money—most competitors for the Orteig prize spent far more than the amount of the purse. Rather, scientists seem to compete because of a drive for perfection, the pursuit of knowledge, and the chance to end up in history books. For the rest of us, that means we get amazing offshoots in the form of innovations that improve our daily lives.