DARPA unveils humanoid disaster-response robot ATLAS

The US military has unveiled a six-foot humanoid robot that could lead to future technology for disaster response missions.

Several research groups are creating software to enable the robot, named “ATLAS”, to perform tasks that might be needed in a disaster, such as clearing debris, as part of a competition run by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The teams are mostly based at US and other universities but also NASA and several private firms, and have until December to teach ATLAS, built by US company Boston Dynamics, the moves it will need for the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC).

The 135kg robot uses 28 hydraulically actuated joints to control its head, legs and arms, controlled by an on-board, real-time computer informed by LIDAR and stereo sensors.

Boston Dynamics, which also created the four-legged “BigDog” robot, developed ATLAS from its earlier PETMAN device that was designed for testing chemical protection suits.

The DRC is designed to develop robots that can operate in difficult environments (including damaged urban areas), use an assortment of vehicles and hand tools, and can be supervised by humans who have had little or no robotics training.

This will mean creating software that can cope with a wide variety of tasks, sensory input and complex decision making, in contrast to the narrow, specific abilities of most robots today.

Seven of the competing teams were the winners of DARPA’s earlier Virtual Robotics Challenge, which saw them develop the algorithms that should now transfer to the ATLAS hardware.

‘The Virtual Robotics Challenge was a proving ground for teams’ ability to create software to control a robot in a hypothetical scenario,’ said DRC programme manager Gill Pratt, in a statement.

‘The DRC Simulator tasks were fairly accurate representations of real world causes and effects, but the experience wasn’t quite the same as handling an actual, physical robot.

‘Now these seven teams will see if their simulation-honed algorithms can run a real machine in real environments. And we expect all teams will be further refining their algorithms, using both simulation and experimentation.’

The competing teams that won the VRC are from:

  • Carnegie Mellon University National Robotics Engineering Center
  • Drexel University
  • NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • NASA Johnson Space Center
  • SCHAFT Inc (Japan)
  • Virginia Tech 

An additional number of teams from other strands of the competition will also compete at the first trials at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.

‘We have dramatically raised the expectations for robotic capabilities with this Challenge, and brought together a diverse group of teams to compete,’ said Pratt.

‘From here out, it’s going to be a race to the DRC Trials in December, and success there just means the qualifying teams will have to keep on sprinting to the finish at the DRC Finals in 2014.’