October 24 marked the official start of the DARPA Robotics Challenge. A two-year-long venture, DARPA hopes the competition will develop robots that can work in dangerous, human-made environments during disaster response situations. DARPA uses the Fukushima nuclear accident as their flagship example of the type of natural disaster or industrial accident scenario to which they hope the robots will respond in the future. The most successful team at the end of the challenge will be awarded with 2 million dollars, a hefty sum that they hope will encourage a variety of teams to participate.
Sample disaster scenario response events include driving a utility vehicle, traveling across rubble, removing debris, climbing ladders, and making repairs and rescues. The robots must be able to use human power tools, like drills and saws, and move through environments made for humans, but they need not be humanoid in form. Based on the progress of the program through its two-year span, DARPA will adjust the difficulty of the response events. Robots will be scored on successful completion of these events, as well as on the time for completion and energy consumption during the event.
There are four tracks to the competition. The first, Track A, includes seven teams who are building both the hardware and the software for the challenge. The teams are Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Engineering Center, Drexel University, Raytheon, SCHAFT Inc, Virginia Tech, NASA Johnson Space Center and the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab.
Tracks B and C are responsible only for the software and programming of the robot. Track B teams are funded by DARPA while Track C teams are working at their own expense. Track B and C teams will compete in an initial Virtual Challenge to program a robot for a virtual disaster scenario. The six most successful teams in this challenge will be provided with Government Furnished Equipment (GFE) “in the form of a robotic hardware platform with arms, legs, torso, and head, called the GFE Platform.” DARPA is providing the hardware to these teams to allow even those without hardware expertise to participate. 11 companies and universities, including MIT, University of Kansas, and University of Washington are currently funded in Track B.
Finally, Track D is open internationally and has very few limits. Anyone who builds a robot that passes initial testing is welcome to participate in the competition in Track D.
It might not come as a surprise that the GFE robot is being designed and manufactured by none other than Boston Robotics. The Waltham-based company, renowned for their ever lengthening list of terrifying robots, is providing the humanoid robots to the Track B and C competitors in the competition. The robot, called ATLAS, will be a more advanced version of the PETMAN robot Boston Dynamics introduced in 2011. ATLAS’s most recent predecessor, Pet-Proto, is like PETMAN’s scarier older brother. What could already climb stairs and do push ups can now maneuver through obstacles. Though its movements are jerky and not yet perfect, there’s no doubt that Boston Dynamics’ final ATLAS robot will be incredible and spooky.
The importance of the competition has been made especially clear in the wake of the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy. First responders would be put at ease if they had robots by their side to remove debris, drive emergency vehicles and clear pathways to safety. Hopefully, thanks to the DARPA Robotics Competition, the next time a natural or industrial disaster occurs, robots can deal with the most dangerous issues and help more humans stay safe.