DARPA: Build us robots that drive -- and use power tools

The defense agency's new Robotics Challenge is a contest to design robots for disaster relief. A key goal: Let humanoid robots, not fleshy humans, enter danger zones.

DARPA's Robotics Challenge is a contest to design robots for dangerous disaster relief situations from natural or industrial disasters.
DARPA's Robotics Challenge is a contest to design robots for dangerous disaster relief situations from natural or industrial disasters. DARPA

If DARPA gets its way, robots will be able to drive, unlock doors, and fix leaking pipes.

The agency today released details of its Robotics Challenge, an initiative to award up to $34 million in grants to improve robots for disaster response operations. Teams will compete for as much as $2 million for a single entry.

The robots themselves don't need to take a human form, but many of the tasks DARPA's challenge addresses favor robots in humanoid form . The challenge lays out a number of jobs the robot needs to address that would be helpful in the aftermath of a natural or industrial disaster, such as the one that rocked the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Contestants in the challenge will need to build robots that can operate a vehicle, including steering, braking, entering, and exiting.

The same robot needs to be able to travel across varied terrain and navigate obstacles such as rubble. In other scenarios, the robot will remove debris from a doorway, enter a building, and break down a wall or concrete panel with power tools. The challenge also calls for the ability to walk on an industrial walkway and ladder and then locate and fix a broken pump.

One of the requirements of the robots is that they can be operated remotely by people without special training. "The program aims to advance the key robotic technologies of supervised autonomy, mounted mobility, dismounted mobility, dexterity, strength, and platform endurance," according to DARPA.

A secondary purpose is to make software for developing these systems easier to use.

There will be two phases to the challenge, which starts this fall and lasts until the end of 2014. A single team will be awarded $2 million cash prize at the end of the second challenge. DARPA will also provide its own hardware platform, a humanoid robot which teams can use for development.

"Adaptability is also essential because we don't know where the next disaster will strike. The key to successfully completing this challenge requires adaptable robots with the ability to use available human tools, from hand tools to vehicles," DARPA program manager Gill Pratt said in a statement.

 

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