This summer, 25 robots from around the world will go head to head in a competition to test how machines could one day provide assistance after natural or man-made disasters.
In October 2012, United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced a prize competition with the aim to develop semi-autonomous ground robots that can do "complex tasks in dangerous, degraded, human-engineered environments." The DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) began in October 2012, is to run for about 33 months with three competitions, a Virtual Robotics Challenge (VRC) that took place in June 2013 and two live hardware challenges, the DRC Trials in December 2013, and the DRC Finals in June 2015.
The event is being hosted in Pomona, California. As part of the event, the bots will attempt tasks such as walking about 30 feet (10 meters), activating an emergency shut-off switch and getting up from a lying position. The winning three teams will take home a combined $3.5 million in cash prizes, DARPA officials said.
The DARPA Robotics Challenge, is a competition to build human-controlled robots that may be used to perform challenging tasks that are dangerous for humans. "We are trying to make robots and human beings work together. Robots are very good at working in dangerous environments, while humans are very good at making judgment calls “Gill Pratt, program manager for the contest, said in a news conference.
The finals will require the robots to be untethered, which means the machines will need to be able to keep their balance or recover from a fall, adding a new level of difficulty. The robots must also have a battery or other on board power source.
"Usually, communications get very poor during disasters," both because the infrastructure becomes degraded and because emergency responders are all trying to use it at the same time, Pratt said. To mimic this scenario, the competition's organizers will intentionally degrade the communications links between the robots and their human controllers, requiring that the bots be semi-autonomous, or capable of acting partially on their own.
The finalists are working with a diverse array of robot designs, in terms of both hardware and software, such as Robo Simian, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory's primate-like robot, while Germany's Momaro robot resembles a torso on four wheels. Seven of the teams are using the upgraded Atlas robot from Boston Dynamics, a Google-owned robotics company based in Waltham, Massachusetts, but each of those will run unique software or other adaptations, Pratt said.
During this year's competition, each robot will have one hour to complete the course. First, the 'bots must drive a vehicle to a simulated disaster zone and walk about 30 feet (10 m) over a field of obstacles and debris. Then, the robots must rotate a circular valve, hook up some wires, cut a hole through a wall, climb up some stairs and exit a building. There will also be a surprise task, for which the teams won't be prepared in advance, Pratt said.
In addition to the robotics challenge, DARPA is hosting a competition for high school students to create a video that address concerns about robotic intelligence and society.
In the times when natural calamities and man-made disasters strike often, DARPA is trying to build on ‘helping hands’ which are high on intelligence and swift in movement. The grand robotics event will focus on the ability to complete such supervised autonomy tasks "despite low fidelity (low bandwidth, high latency, intermittent) communications" in order to test the bots for working under actual calamity situations.