Attention, BEAR, MABEL, and SAFFiR: You may be able to win your makers two million bucks! That’s the amount that DARPA is offering to the victorious team in its recently-announced Robotics Challenge. The winning robot will be the one that best meets a series of challenges, designed to test its ability to provide assistance in disaster scenarios.

The contest is open to anyone, be it robotics manufacturers, universities, or even basement tinkerers. In fact, DARPA (an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense) is encouraging the involvement of people not normally involved with robotics in order to bring fresh perspectives to the field. It is hoped that the event will foster innovations in both hardware and software.

“This challenge is going to test supervised autonomy in perception and decision-making, mounted and dismounted mobility, dexterity, strength and endurance in an environment designed for human use but degraded due to a disaster,” said DARPA program manager Gill Pratt. “Adaptability is also essential, because we don’t know where the next disaster will strike. The key to successfully completing this challenge requires adaptable robots with the ability to use available human tools, from hand tools to vehicles.”

Scheduled to start this October, the first phase of the contest will stretch over 15 months. This will be followed by a second phase, running throughout 2014. Both phases will culminate in a competition, at least one of which will likely require a single robot (per team) to carry out the following eight tasks:

  • Drive a utility vehicle at the site – this will include getting in and out of an unmodified vehicle, along with steering, accelerating and braking on a moderately curving road (maximum speed will be 15 km/h, or 9.3 mph)
  • Travel dismounted across rubble – after leaving the vehicle, robots will have to traverse a variety of terrains, along with avoiding insurmountable obstacles
  • Remove debris blocking an entryway – that debris will likely be a solid object such as a rock or cinder block, not weighing more than 5 kg (11 lbs)
  • Open a door and enter a building
  • Climb an industrial ladder and traverse an industrial walkway
  • Use a power tool to break through a concrete panel – the tool will probably be an air or electric impact hammer and chisel, or an electric reciprocating saw
  • Locate and close a valve near a leaking pipe – there will be multiple pipes present, but the leaking one should be identifiable by its hissing sound and escaping smoke
  • Replace a component such as a cooling pump – besides locating the pump, this will involve loosening one or more fasteners, extracting the faulty pump, then reversing the steps to replace it with another

The PETMAN humanoid robot (Photo: Boston Dynamics)

Teams will have the option of competing using the GFE (Government Furnished Equipment) Platform, designed and built by DARPA. This will be based on Boston Dynamic’s bipedal ATLAS robot – which is itself derived from the company’s PETMAN – and will be a basic humanoid robotic platform including arms, legs, a torso, and head. Teams using a GFE will be free to modify its hardware and software as needed, and will be aided in that process with a computer test-bed known as the GFE Simulator.

That said, organizers have stated that the robots do not have to be humanoid in form ... although some of the tasks certainly suggest that humanoid robots might be particularly well-suited to the challenge.

Source: DARPA via IEEE Spectrum