DARPA Announces Responder Robot Competition
April 11, 2012

DARPA Announces Responder Robot Competition

The Defense Advanced Research and Planning Agency (DARPA) issued a challenge to robot builders this week, as the move to rely on robots to do our dirty work rolls on.

The agency is also asking challengers to keep their minds open, saying these robots don´t have to feature a human-like form. One roboticist, Aaron Edsinger of Meka Robotics in San Francisco, told the New York Times he was already speaking with other builders and considering different forms of inspiration.

“Analogs to animals such as spiders, monkeys, bears, kangaroos and goats are useful inspiration when considering parts of the challenge,” he said.

DARPA listed 8 likely tasks entry robots will need to perform, such as driving a vehicle to a disaster site, walking past debris and rubble, scaling a ladder, replacing a broken pump, and closing a leaking valve. Rather than be able to successfully complete one or even five of these tasks, the robotic entrants will need to be able to do all 8 as part of a complete mission. This is where the real challenge comes into play, according to Mr. Edsinger.

The idea for this kind of contest and this kind of robot came in the wake of the March 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami.  As the Fukushima nuclear plant suffered a meltdown, officials could only watch as the disaster unfolded, unable to send in units to take care of the situation. Gill Pratt, a program manager for DARPA´s defense sciences office told the New York Times reporter John Markoff, “During the first 24 hours, there were things that should have been done but were not done because it was too dangerous for people to do them.”

DARPA is calling the contest a “Robotics Challenge” and has yet to announce how much money they plan to spend on the program or how large the prize will be. This contest is meant to be distinguished from previous “Grand Challenges,” in which robotic engineers designed autonomous vehicles to drive in urban and desert settings. The grand prize for the grand challenges ranged from $1 million to $2 million.

Corporate and University teams alike will compete in 2013 and 2015. Their robots will not need to be completely autonomous, however. Much like the military drones, these new robots can be supervised by humans from a distance.

Contests such as these further highlight the rapid movement towards autonomous machines performing dangerous tasks once performed by humans. According to robotics experts, part of what´s fueling these advances are the falling costs of sensors and components, as well as perception technologies, which allow the robots to move in an ever changing environment.

DARPA hopes to receive international teams in their newest competition. For instance, Japanese company Honda revealed their Asimo robot in 2000. Within 5 years Asimo was able to operate for a full hour on a single charge. Last year, Asimo was upgraded to be able to run as fast as 6 miles per hour.

Though there have been large advancements and interest in robotics in Japan, there were no robots ready at the time of the Fukushima disaster.

Two companies in the United States, General Motors and military-funded Boston Dynamics have already developed humanoid and multi-legged robots. G.M.´s version, for example, is already in use on the international space station as its tested to be used as an astronauts assistant. Boston Dynamics has recently created two four-legged robots; Big Dog is a large transport robot designed to carry materials to troops, while Cheetah can run up to 18 miles per hour.

DARPA hopes to receive all kinds of entrants, humanoid and multi-legged alike. Perhaps one of these contests will be the birthplace of a new kind of robot used to keep humans out of harm´s way in times of disaster and war?