HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Seventeen teams and their robot creations are battling it out today, in the start of an ambitious two-day robotics competition.

The DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials begin today (Dec. 20) here at the Homestead Miami Speedway. The event, hosted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the branch of the U.S. Department of Defense tasked with developing new technologies for the military, is free and open to the public. But, for anyone unable to be in the Sunshine State in person, the agency will broadcast some of the competition's events live online.

The Robotics Challenge is designed to test the capabilities of robots that have been built to assist humans in disaster-response situations. As part of the trials, the robots will compete in eight tasks that evaluate their mobility, perception, dexterity and ability to make autonomous decisions.

The goal is to improve how humans and robots work together in the aftermath of natural or man-made disasters, said Gill Pratt, program manager of the DARPA Robotics Challenge. [Images: DARPA Robotics Challenge]

"It's really about three particular things," Pratt told reporters in a news briefing. "One, robots have to work in environments that were engineered for human beings, including [places] degraded by disaster. Two, the have to be able to use human tools — everything from a screwdriver to a fire truck. Three, we want these robots to be usable by personnel who are experts in handling disasters, without them having to be experts in robots."

The tasks at the Robotics Challenge include driving a vehicle through a marked course; moving debris from a doorway; navigating over rubble and uneven terrain; climbing an industrial ladder; retrieving and connecting a hose; demonstrating the ability to open three different types of doors; using tools to cut through drywall; and closing a series of valves to prove dexterity.

The robots' performances will be scored based on completion of the task, with bonus points awarded for achieving specific milestones, or for demonstrating higher degrees of robotic autonomy.

Parts of the contest will be broadcast live on the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials website, according to the event's organizers. Alternately, people may tune in to DARPATv on YouTube to stream footage from the competition.

The participating teams range from university groups to software and robotics firms, including NASA, Carnegie Mellon University, Drexel University, MIT, TORC Robotics and Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Labs. Five different countries are being represented at the Trials, according to DARPA officials.

The performance of the robots at this week's trials will determine which teams move on to compete for a $2 million grand prize at the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals, which will be held in 2014, agency officials said.

The DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials run today and tomorrow (Dec. 21), from 8 a.m. EST to 4 p.m. EST daily. A detailed schedule can be found on the event's website.

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