‘Rise of the Robots’ chronicles race to build disaster-relief bots

TV documentary highlights challenges of designing humanlike machines


A humanoid robot named Hubo uses a mechanical hand to turn a valve at the finals of the DARPA Robotics Challenge in California. 


At the 2013 trials of DARPA’s robotics competition in Florida, a high-tech robot named Hubo had just about completed a tricky challenge: climbing up a ladder roughly the height of a small elephant.

Hubo, a 5-foot-tall walking bot, was pitting its skills against a slew of formidable contenders, all in a contest designed to simulate what rescue robots might face in a disaster. Hubo had already climbed eight of the ladder’s nine rungs — more than any other bot in the competition.

Then, Hubo tipped over and plunged off the ladder, dangling from a safety wire like a dancing marionette.

The bot’s rise and fall illustrates the state of humanoid robotics today, suggests “Rise of the Robots,” a documentary from the TV series NOVA that will air February 24 on PBS. Roboticists have created all sorts of fancy machines that can do all sorts of impressive things, such as cooking, dancing and even folding laundry. But getting these bots ready for rescue work — walking over rubble, picking up debris and driving cars, for example — is an entirely different story.

In fact, just getting bots to work outside the lab is tough, say several researchers interviewed in the show. “The real world is like the wild, Wild West,” says Tony Stentz, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

“Rise of the Robots” introduces viewers to Stentz’s team’s bot, a roughly 180-kilogram behemoth named CHIMP, and a suite of other people-sized machines. The documentary follows these robots as they tackle tasks in DARPA’s competition, which ended in 2015. Seeing the bots in action is thrilling, but their awkwardness is eye-opening. Humanoid robots have yet to master upright walking on two legs, like people do. It’s one of the trickiest problems facing modern roboticists. In the competition, robots trudge slowly, topple over backward and stand motionless for minutes at a time.

Still, there’s plenty to ooh and ah over. The documentary takes a round-the-world tour of some of the hottest robotics labs. In London, a black robotic hand wiggles slim mechanical fingers nearly as deftly as a human. In Florida, a hulking humanoid bot named Atlas balances on one foot, waving arms in the air like the Karate Kid.

At the end of the hour-long show, “Rise of the Robots” brings viewers back to Hubo. The robot has a slick new look and is now competing in the competition’s finals. The action is still slow, but viewers will be on the edge of their seats rooting for machines that are steps closer to becoming more human, if not yet there.

COOL CHOREOGRAPHY   Rise of the Robots airs February 24 on PBS. 


Meghan Rosen headhsot

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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