Aftershocks from the earthquake still shaking the broken ground, the robot grabs a monkey wrench from a wounded plumber, jumps into his Ford F150 truck, and drives over the smoking rubble to the collapsing building, where poisonous gas from a fractured pipe is preventing rescuers reaching survivors. Pushing through the scalding cloud and knocking down a teetering wall, the robot reaches the leaking pipe and locates the valve, shutting off the gas.
That's one scenario behind DARPA's latest come-ye-all competition, the Robotics Challenge, or DRC, which aims to demonstrate a robot that can help humans respond to disasters by going where they can't. Live challenges are planned for December 2013 and December 2014. Teams will have to demonstrate robots that, with supervised autonomy in a disaster scenario, can use tools and equipment available in human environments, ranging from hand tools to vehicles.
Under the Challenge, the Pentagon agency will provide funding to seven teams that will develop robotic systems with hardware and software (Track A) and 11 that will develop software only (Track B). Teams remain to be selected for two further tracks: teams that will compete without hardware; and those who want to develop hardware and software, but without DARPA funding.
The first event, the Virtual Robotics Challenge, is set for June 2013, in a DARPA-developed open-source simulator, with a qualifying round to be held in May next year. Software-only teams that advance beyond this point will be provided with DARPA-supplied robots developed by Boston Dynamics.
“The range of designs submitted by the selected Track A performers reflects DARPA’s emphasis that, while the robots competing in the [Challenge] must be able to operate in human-engineered environments, they do not have to be humanoid in form,” the agency says.
Humanoid (left to right): Carnegie Mellon's CHIMP, Raytheon's Guardian and Virgina Tech's THOR
In Track A, teams from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Drexel University, Raytheon, Virginia Tech and NASA Johnson Space Center are developing humanoid or near-humanoid robots. CMU's CHIMP is designed to be statically stable and strong. Virgina Tech's THOR will be light and agile. Raytheon’s Guardian design is a self-powered, dexterous humanoid robot built on the company’s XOS powered exoskeleton concept.
Not so humanoid - Schaft's HRP-2 (left) and JPL's RoboSimian (right)
A team from Schaft Inc. proposed a bipedal robot based on the existing HRP-2 from Japan's Kawada Industries, while the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) proposed a passively stable, simian-inspired robot with four general-purpose limbs and hands.