DARPA announces disaster-relief robotics challenge

The US government has launched a competition to develop robots that can help provide emergency services during a disaster.

The Defense Department’s research agency DARPA yesterday announced the qualifying teams for its Robotics Challenge (DRC), who will receive funding to develop competing hardware and software for disaster-response robots.

The competition also has an open category inviting teams to build working robots without DARPA funding and take part in live events demonstrating their systems over the next two years.

At the end of the competition’s first phase in early 2014, the robots will be tested across eight categories that roughly mimic the situation created inside the Fukushima nuclear plant after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

The challenges include being able to drive and dismount a vehicle, travel across rubble, remove debris, open a door, climb a ladder, use a tool to break through a concrete wall, locate and shut off a leaky valve, and remove and replace a pump.

DARPA’s online simulator will enable competitors to develop software without the need for expensive hardware

‘The response to the DRC has shown that the international robotics community shares a common goal of advancing robotic technology to the point where it can have a tangible and positive impact on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,’ said DRC programme manager Gill Pratt in a statement.

‘Through the DRC, DARPA is providing the forum, tools and incentives to come together and take steps toward that goal.’

DARPA has also launched an online simulator that will enable other individuals and teams to develop and test robotic software without the need for expensive hardware, the best of which will receive funding to take part in the next stage of the competition.

Those software developers selected to reach the next stage of the competition will receive a modified robot platform based on Boston Dynamics’ humanoid robot Atlas to test their programs.

Those selected for the second round of DARPA’s software competition will receive a robot based on Boston Dynamics’ Atlas to test their programs

‘The value of a cloud-based simulator is that it gives talent from any location a common space to train, design, test and collaborate on ideas without the need for expensive hardware and prototyping. That opens the door to innovation,’ said Pratt.

Drexel University in Philadelphia is leading one of the teams selected for the hardware element of the challenge. Team members at Purdue University in Indiana will be using a HUBO II robot manufactured in Korea that can walk, pick up objects and complete other tasks, to develop the control programs.

‘We will develop our own algorithms and program it to do what we want it to do,’ said Purdue team leader Prof C S George Lee. ‘This project combines several types of research: computer vision, locomotion and balance control, and machine learning.’