Japan's Schaft has all the right stuff at DARPA robot trials

A university spinoff's disaster-aid robot claims top honors at a Pentagon-sponsored competition. Oh, and it's now part of Google's robot fleet.

Tim Hornyak
Crave freelancer Tim Hornyak is the author of "Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots." He has been writing about Japanese culture and technology for a decade. E-mail Tim.
Tim Hornyak
2 min read
Schaft robot
Schaft's humanoid robot prowls through long grass. What are Google's plans for it? Video screenshot by Tim Hornyak/CNET

It may look like a clunky Asimo prototype from 20 years ago, but a humanoid rescue robot built by Japanese university graduates overwhelmed the competition at a prestigious Pentagon-sponsored robotics event over the weekend.

Tokyo-based Schaft won the day, scoring 27 out of 32 possible points in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), a series of trials for robots designed to aid in disaster relief efforts, such as nuclear plant accidents.

The victory is ironic for Japan. Despite the country's robotics prowess, it had no robots on hand to help with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant meltdown in 2011, the kind of emergency the DRC is trying to tackle.

IHMC Robotics, based in Florida, grabbed second place in the DARPA Robotics Challenge, which was held at Homestead Miami Speedway in Florida. Carnegie Mellon University's Team Tartan Rescue placed third.

Eight of the top teams that participated in the challenge may receive as much as $1 million in funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which develops technology for the U.S. military, ahead of further trials next year with a $2 million prize.

A spinoff from the University of Tokyo, Team Schaft is led by Yuto Nakanishi, known for his work on Kojiro, a musculoskeletal humanoid under development since 2007 at the university's JSK Robotics Laboratory.

The 5-foot-tall, 209-pound bipedal Schaft was able to bring stable walking and significant torque power to the DARPA trials, which included challenges such as opening doors, wielding hoses, and cutting away part of a wall.

Team Schaft lost points when a gust of wind was able to blow a door out of the robot's hand. Also, the robot was unable to exit a vehicle after having navigated a predetermined course successfully.

Schaft is one of a handful of robotics companies that Google has picked up recently. That group also includes Boston Dynamics, the maker of the terrifying BigDog and other animal-inspired military machines. Google's plans for the robotic technology haven't been disclosed.

DARPA Robotics Challenge chief Gill Pratt praised Team Schaft's initiative, noting that when DARPA officials visited the group in Japan last year, it already had built three prototype robots for the competition.

"When we got there to do the site review and walked into their lab, we were amazed," Pratt was quoted as saying by The New York Times.

Check out Schaft in the video below. What do you think Google plans to do with this thing?