The Pentagon today announced a robot competition, putting out a call for the type of full-service bot that could go into a dangerous emergency situation, perform multiple tasks and complete a mission. "The primary goal of the DARPA Robotics Challenge program is to develop ground robotic capabilities to execute complex tasks in dangerous, degraded, human-engineered environments," explains the full program description. DARPA will award a $2 million prize to the team that pushes robotics to this next level, where these machines can do more than one repeated task -- something robotics has yet to produce -- which would come in handy in Fukushima type emergency situations. More than just a simple machine programmed to do one thing, these robots have to think and work more like humans, who are built and programmed to do lots of things all in one go. We can therefore expect humanoid robots to come out of this competition that look something like these already humanesque creations.
Meka's M1 Mobile Manipulator
Aaron Edsinger, a founder of Meka Robotics told The New York Times's John Markoff, who wrote up the DARPA contest, that he was already scheming with fellow robot makers over design possibilities. The M1 Manipulator, from the sounds of it, with some tweaking could meet the multi-task requirements. "At Meka we believe that robots designed to work in human environments require mobility, dexterity, and compliant force-control. We created the Meka M1 to meet these needs," explains the Meka site. Though, Edsinger mentioned to Markoff that something more animalistic might satisfy the challenge better. "Analogs to animals such as spiders, monkeys, bears, kangaroos and goats are useful inspiration when considering parts of the challenge," he explained. Something half-man, half-beast, perhaps? Here's Meka in action.
If it's animal inspiration we're looking for, this creation from Boston Dynamics might provide some useful inspiration. It can't do much beyond run faster than any other robot, breaking the previous record of 13.1 mph, reaching 18.0 mph speeds. Of the eight likely tasks DARPA has outlined for the robots to complete -- driving a vehicle to a simulated disaster site, moving across rubble, removing rubble from an entryway, climbing a ladder, using a tool to break through a concrete wall, finding and closing a valve on a leaking pipe, and replacing a component like a cooling pump -- CHEETAH can do few. But those cheetah-fast legs would add a speedy touch. Here's the cheetah-bot in action.
More animal inspiration from the Boston Dynamics Lab, this rough terrain robot is the yin to CHEETAH's yang, doing heavy lifting and climbing through rubble. "BigDog is the size of a large dog or small mule; about 3 feet long, 2.5 feet tall and weighs 240 lbs," explains the site. "BigDog has four legs that are articulated like an animal’s, with compliant elements to absorb shock and recycle energy from one step to the next." BigDog would perform well in the harsh conditions that often result during natural disasters and other types of emergencies, like fires or nuclear explosions. Again, alone, he would not fit the bill.
The iRobot PackBot
The whole competition was inspired by Fukushima. "Robots played a supporting role in mitigating fallout from the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan, and are used by U.S. military forces as assistants for servicemembers in diffusing improvised explosive devices," explains the DARPA press release. These are one of the bots that assisted, helping with Fukushima plant clean-up. As the challenge notes, these bots did not go far enough. "True innovation in robotics technology could result in much more effective robots that could better intervene in high-risk situations and thus save human lives and help contain the impact of natural disasters," continues the release. But when too dangerous, these little guys equipped with cameras, sensors and laser pointers went in to measure radioactivity, sift through debris and stream video back to the humans handling the cleanup. They got things done.
Alone, none of these bots fulfills the DARPA dream, but each have components that could make up the future robots that will save our lives.