Cosmic Tech

German robotics team wins Avatar XPRIZE showdown

Robotic life imitated art this weekend at a telepresence contest in California, and Germany’s Team NimbRo is $5 million richer as a result. The payoff came at the end of the $10 million ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition in Long Beach, sponsored by Japan’s All Nippon Airways and organized by the XPRIZE foundation.

The contest incentivized technologies that allow operators to perform real-time robotic operations remotely — a la the fictional blue-skinned androids who are linked to humans in the “Avatar” movie series (with “Avatar: The Way of Water” premiering next month). The concept is also center stage in “The Peripheral,” a sci-fi novel by William Gibson that’s been adapted for the screen on Amazon Prime Video.

Ninety-nine teams signed up for the Avatar XPRIZE in 2018, kicking off rounds of competition that led to the Nov. 5 finals at the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center. The robots had to weigh less than 160 kilograms (350 pounds) and be controlled wirelessly.

This weekend, 17 finalist teams from 10 countries brought in their robotic telepresence systems to perform a series of remote tasks such as traversing an 80-foot-long obstacle course strewn with boulders, flipping switches, using a power drill to unscrew a bolt, and selecting the roughest rock in a collection based strictly by feel.

For the finals, the avatars were controlled by outside judges from a separate room, rather than by team members. Points were awarded based on how quickly and how well the tasks were performed. NimbRo’s robot did all 10 tasks in five minutes and 50 seconds.

A robot built by a French team called Pollen Robotics accomplished all the tasks in 10 minutes and 50 seconds, earning the $2 million second prize. Boston-based Team Northeastern came away with the $1 million third prize. The other $2 million of the prize purse was awarded last year to the teams advancing to the finals.

More than 2,000 spectators watched the contest in person, and the event was live-streamed as well.

XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari, who helped bankroll the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private-sector spaceflight nearly two decades ago, said the technologies that were demonstrated this weekend could have wide applications in space and on Earth.

“NimbRo’s work demonstrates the remarkable potential of avatar technology to transcend time and distance and help address urgent human challenges, from health care access to disaster relief,” she said in a news release. “The final testing event was an exciting opportunity to share the power of telepresence with thousands of people in-person and around the world.”

David Locke, executive director for the Avatar XPRIZE, said “telepresence and avatar technology will be an essential part of human progress in the decades to come.”

ANA sponsored the competition in part because it’s been looking at ways to let travelers experience the sights and sounds of far-off destinations through telepresence. Junko Yazawa, ANA’s executive vice president said innovations in avatar technology “are a major step forward toward our goal of creating a more connected world.”

A venture called Avatarin has been spun out from ANA Holdings to explore the possibilities for terrestrial and space-based avatar technology in cooperation with partners including the University of Tokyo and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA.

Avatarin’s chief operating officer, Kevin Kajitani, said at the 2019 GeekWire Summit that the power of telepresence technology was literally brought home for him when he linked up with a mobile robot to play with his son. “The first time I approached my son with the avatar, he said, ‘Papa!’ And we started playing,” Kajitani recalled.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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