PORTLAND, Ore. — Over $96 million has been spent already by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) on its Robotics Challenge (DRC) with a $3.5 million purse — $2 million for first place, $1 million for second place and $500,000 for third place. To test the robots in disaster mitigation DARPA has set up a special town in the Pomona, California desert where next month 25 robots will compete in mitigating a Fukushima-like disaster.
Although the competition is focused on disaster mitigation, the systems developed by the teams could eventually be used in Department of Defense robots, medical robots and many other fields, according to Tim Kilbride, host of a press conference call on the Robotics Challenge.
The final Robotics Challenge contest will be very difficult and only a few are expected to succeed on all task to take home the $2 million, $1 million and $500,000 prizes.
“There is a wide spectrum of how these technologies will be used, including defense,” Kilbride told us.
The project leader of the Robotics Challenge, DRC Program Manager Gill Pratt explained further.
“We want to develop better tools and techniques to respond to natural disasters,” Pratt told us. “And the Fukushima disaster was an great inspiration for us. We don't know what the next disaster will be, but we know we need to develop robots that can respond to them.”
Pratt explained that Fukushima was the perfect example of how robots can mitigate the long-range effects of a disaster.
“In Fukushima we has an earthquake, followed by a blackout, followed by a tsunami, which led to three large explosions that could have been prevented if a robot could have gone in and turned off the relevant valves,” Pratt told us.
Why is this problem not already solved — Pratt asked rhetorically — why do we need new technologies for disasters when there are so many robots available already? The reason, he said, was because today's robots were all designed to perform specific tasks under near perfect conditions, whereas during a disaster there are random tasks random obstacles and worst of all, random communications connectivity.
“We have all different shapes and sizes of robots in DARPA's contest, but the most important thing is that they be able to communicate with each other during the disaster mitigation. The people and the robots also need to communicate with each other, even if the regular communications channels are overloaded or not even working at all,” Pratt told us.
To test the ability of 25 robots to surmount these obstacles the robots will first have to drive a standard utility vehicle (designed for people) to get to the disaster site. Then perform all tasks on their own, such as find the knob, opening and going through doors, climb stairs, cut wholes in walls to gain access, close values and surmount at least one impediment undisclosed to the teams ahead of time.
In addition, the robots communications channel with their human handler will be intentionally degraded with noise and intermittency. In addition, half of the software developed for each robot is oriented to giving the human handler total situation awareness of what is going on around the robot, despite the degraded and intermittent communications channels.
“A substantial number of these robots will have a lot of trouble with the tasks which we have made very hard,” Pratt told us. “They can't recharge their batteries, if they fall they have to get up on their own (or a team can send in a second robot to pick up the fallen robot and bring it back to the starting line with a 10 minute penalty),” Pratt told us.
The team with the fastest time completing all the tasks will win the $2 million first place prize, the team with the second shortest time will win $1million with the $500,000 prize going to the team taking the third shortest time.
DARPA'S “default” robot that it gives teams that do not want to build their own has been redesigned by Boston Dynamics.
The public is invited to watch the competition from stands in Pomona on June 5-6 at the Fairplex. DARPA will also run an after-the-competition workshop on June 7 in which the winning teams will explain how they did it, as well as their vision of how robots will contribute to society in the future.
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