The Department of Defense has just launched a new robot design competition called the Robotics Challenge, setting a $2 million cash prize to sweeten the pot with the aim of developing a humanoid robot for emergency response. The ostensible inspiration has been recent environmental mega-disasters like the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, which call for a new breed of emergency responders who can operate efficiently under conditions that would normally fry, pulp or otherwise mangle a human being beyond recognition – though the application to military situations is obvious, too.
Another green job for robots
New green technology is trending on a parallel path with advanced robotics, and one result is that green jobs for robots are becoming commonplace. Robotic devices are already performing manufacturing, maintenance and repair tasks in the solar and wind energy fields, and robots for environmental monitoring, surveying and data collection are under development. Robots have also been practicing emergency response, primarily in the form of those effective but clunky little bomb defusing robots.
The Department of Defense competition, administered by the research agency DARPA, steps it up to a whole new level by requiring advanced mobility, dexterity, flexibility, durability, and the ability to act autonomously.
The DARPA Robotics Challenge
The Robotics Challenge will launch in October and DARPA has already begun to solicit interest from the robotics field. The agency issued a funding opportunity announcement that underscores the need for a robot with human attributes, because it specifically seeks a robot that can function effectively in environments that were engineered for human beings. That includes obstacles like staircases and ladders.
The winning robot also needs to handle tools designed for humans – and in this competition, a vehicle counts as a tool – so in addition to having highly dexterous arms and hands, it will need the flexibility to adapt its shape to fit into oddly shaped spaces.
Green robots with Bette Davis eyes
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the competition is designing a robotic system that can be operated easily by personnel who are not robotics experts. The commands could be executed electronically and also by in person by using hand gestures, words or even facial expressions, and that’s where the Bette Davis eyes would come in (Bette Davis, the actress, had famously enormous eyes).
Robotics experts at the Naval Research Laboratory are in fact already at work on a pair of humanoid disaster response robots named Lucas and Octavia that sport large eyes, complete with arched eyebrows.
According to Department of Defense writer Jessica Tozer, the anthropomorphic eyes have an important function: their calming appearance can have a significant effect on the ability of human operators to act under stress.
A YouTube video of Octavia in action demonstrates how the robot responds initially to in-person human hand gestures in an emergency, then acts autonomously to pinpoint the source of a fire and put it out, with its human operator safely out of the picture.
Disaster-fighting robots from the Navy
Octavia and Lucas have a way to go before they win DARPA’s challenge, since they have no legs, at least not yet. However, the Navy is also working on another advanced disaster response robot called SAFFiR, for Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot.
SAFFiR is a partnership with the legendary Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory at Virginia Tech, which has already been developing a stable of cognitive humanoid robots.
If the SAFFiR project becomes involved with Robotics Challenge, it already has a good head start. The research team is designing SAFFiR to deal with a complex maritime environment that is characterized by cramped spaces, ladders, and raised door sills among many other obstacles.
In addition, like any good sailor a Navy robot will have to develop a keen sense of balance and function effectively in heavy seas.
When fully developed, the goal is to get SAFFiR into the general size of a human, so that it can fit into gear designed for humans.
That might carry the humanoid angle a bit farther than DARPA bargained for — a robot fully clothed in protective gear could end up looking practically identical to its human mates.
Image: Courtesy of DARPA.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.