While Pacific Rim might have made robots big again in popular media, the real work being done on robots isn’t in combat operations. Every time a firefighter loses his life on the job, or people are asked to go into a toxic or nuclear environment to perform cleanup, the same job could be performed by a robot without risk to humans. DARPA is helping advance robotic technology with its DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) with the intent that one day soon robots could perform vital disaster relief work and save more lives.
The DRC began with a virtual robotic challenge (VRC), open to teams from around the world, to prove they could program a robot to perform the kinds of tasks that go hand-in-hand with disasters. These tasks include navigating around hazards, the ability to use tools, remaining mobile and functional, and solid communication with human handlers. A total of 26 teams from eight countries were selected to compete. Read more about the Challenge in the June 2013 Desktop Engineering cover story.
“The VRC and the DARPA Simulator allowed us to open the field for the DARPA Robotics Challenge beyond hardware to include experts in robotic software. Integrating both skill sets is vital to the long-term feasibility of robots for disaster response,” said Gill Pratt, DRC program manager. “The Virtual Robotics Challenge itself was also a great technical accomplishment, as we have now tested and provided an open-source simulation platform that has the potential to catalyze the robotics and electro-mechanical systems industries by lowering costs to create low-volume, highly complex systems.”
The results of the VRC narrowed the field to nine teams, including teams from MIT, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and, in the top spot, the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. These teams will be given access to Atlas, DARPA’s newest, most advanced robot. The teams will compete again in December to show how well they’ve managed to transition their work into simulated real world disaster situations.
Atlas has been designed to use a variety of tools, including piloting a vehicle, and is meant to be stable enough to transverse difficult terrain on two legs. The robot is hydraulically powered and made from aircraft-grade aluminum and titanium, weighing in at 330 lbs. DARPA intends for Atlas to run semi-independently, making the robot more viable in areas where communication with its human handlers is slow.
Below you’ll find a video about Atlas.