DARPA’S LAST ROBOT CHALLENGE ANNOUNCED
By Cheryl Pellerin
25 Jul 14. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s third and final challenge among 24 or so U.S. and international human-robot teams will take place in California next June, ending with a $2 million prize and robots that for the first time may be capable of helping first responders save lives when a disaster strikes anywhere in the world.
The main goal of the DARPA Robotics Challenge program is to develop ground-robotics capabilities for executing complex tasks in the dangerous, degraded human-engineered environments created when disasters strike cities.
“The purpose is to protect lives during manmade and natural disasters,” DARPA program manager Dr. Gill Pratt told reporters during a recent media call. The program began in 2012, DARPA has been trying to use robots to help in disasters since 2001.
In the days after 9/11, DARPA sent to New York City robots whose development the agency had funded. But those robots found no survivors, Pratt recalled in an analytic piece published last Dec. 3 in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
DARPA officials tried again in March 2011 when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake centered off the coast of Sendai on the eastern coast of Honshu Island, Japan, produced a 49-foot tsunami that killed 19,000 people, destroyed a million buildings and flooded Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
In the plant, the reactor cores of three operating units melted, and a fourth was damaged. Japanese officials declared a nuclear emergency and ultimately evacuated people within 12 miles of the plant.
Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief is a primary DOD mission, Pratt wrote in the Dec. 3 Bulletin, and as the disaster unfolded in Japan, “DARPA officials contacted researchers who had designed robots for the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl [nuclear] disasters and coordinated with companies that DARPA had funded to develop other robots.”
Each company already was making plans to send its robots and training personnel to Japan, he added, and others around the world sent robots, but it took weeks for power-plant personnel to complete the training they needed to operate the robots.
By then, Pratt said, it was too late for the robots to help.
“A key idea here is that these robots don’t operate on their own,” Pratt said during the media call. “In fact, the state of the art is not capable of having a robot do useful work on its own in these very difficult environments. So we partner them with operators who supervise the robots … at a distance from the disaster zone, connected through a communication link to the robot in the disaster zone.”
In such a team, he added, “a robot does what it’s best at, which is surviving difficult conditions in the disaster, and the human being does what they’re best at, which is using human perception, planning and experience to tell the robot what to do.”
The DARPA Robotics Challenge launched in October 2012 and held two competitions in 2013 – a virtual event in June and a two-day event in December at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.
The first competition tested software teams’ abilities to guide a simulated robot through three sample tasks in a virtual environment. In December, teams had to guide real robots through as many as eight individual physical tasks that tested robot mobility, manipulation, dexterity, perception and operator-control mechanisms.
At the trials in Miami, Pratt said, “we started with 16 teams and … went through eight different tasks, from cutting a hole in a wall using a tool, climbing a ladder and traveling over rough terrain, and even driving a small vehicle that a robot might be called on [to use] to go back and forth between [a safe area] and a disaster zone.”
DARPA officials developed the tasks in consultation with the teams, other experts and first responders, the program manager explained, adding that DARPA is not trying