NASA Valkyrie robot

UAS and Robotics

Robots to the rescue: Humanoid systems take up DARPA’s challenge

The current state of robotics will be put to a serious test this weekend as 17 robots and software teams take their autonomous unmanned systems to Florida for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Robotics Challenge.

They might look like Robocop or some kind of praying mantis, but they all have the same mission: assisting humans in man-made or natural disasters, particularly in going where humans dare not go. They need to be able to navigate indoors and outdoors, operate tools ranging from a sledge hammer to a screwdriver, and possibly even operate a fire truck that DARPA said might be at the scene.

The challenge, which takes place Dec. 20-21 at the Homestead Miami Speedway, was prompted by the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown in Japan, where an earthquake and tsunami had knocked out the backup power systems that cooled the reactors, DARPA said. Fuel in three of the reactors melted, resulting in explosions and the release of radiation.

One goal of the challenge is to see if robots could be capable of defusing such a situation, said Dr. Gill Pratt, DARPA's Robotics Challenge program manager.

"During the first 24 hours there, if only human beings had been able to go into the reactor buildings and vent built-up gas that was accumulating inside the reactors, the explosions that occurred might have been prevented and the disaster would not have been as severe," Pratt said.

That disaster established some of the tests the robots are to perform, such as knocking down a wall, opening a door, clearing debris, finding a leaking pipe and closing a valve and replacing a cooling pump. But, as DARPA notes, the eight tasks set for the test could apply in a wide variety of disasters, and the challenge will put equal emphasis on each of them.

The competition is designed to be difficult, and the outcome will set the baseline for the current state of robotics, Pratt said.

The challenge is drawing teams from government, academia and industry. Among them is NASA’s “superhero robot” Valkyrie, a 6-foot-2, 275-pound RoboCop-looking system that offer a good example of what goes into these robots. The software-laden Valkyrie has several cameras, including a LIDAR system, in its head, as well as cameras and sonar in the chest area and cameras in its forearms, knees and feet, all sending images back to its operator. It’s made of modular components, which allow for easy replacement and upgrades, and is powered by a two-kilowatt hour battery.

And in addition to disaster response, NASA, naturally, is looking to the stars: The agency said it could see future iterations of Valkyrie-style robots being used on Mars, in advance of human visitors.

Other robots in the competition take different shapes. Another NASA entry, RoboSimian, developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is described as an ape-like robot. Carnegie Mellon University goes smaller and more compact with the 5-foot-2, 400-pound CHIMP (CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform), which nevertheless also has a near-human form. Virginia Tech’s THOR (Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot) eschews an outer shell for its 5-foot-10, 143-pound frame, leaving its inner workings in the open.

Although the competition in Florida represents a proving ground for the robot systems, it actually marks a halfway point for the challenge overall. The challenge was launched in early 2012, with a Virtual Robotics Challenge held that June to test the ability of software teams to manipulate a simulated robot. The current competition will set up the finals, to be held at the end of 2014, when the robots will have to complete a series of tasks amid degraded communications between them and their operators. The winner will get a $2 million prize.


About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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