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.