Robots march toward disaster response

Robots march toward disaster response

As part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Robotics Challenge, teams from several countries will showcase their robot designs and capabilities in multiple events for a chance to win $3.5 million in prizes.  The objective of the contest is to test robotic solutions that can be applied during natural disasters to assist in response.   

Beginning in 2013, teams competed in trials in Florida putting their robotic prototypes to the test in eight tasks that examined mobility, manipulation, dexterity, perception and operator-control mechanisms.  The final challenge will test similar capabilities in simulated disasters zones at Southern California’s Fairplex. 

In this final round, 25 robots will be given an hour to perform a circuit of physical tasks, with degraded communications between the robots and their operators.  The intermittent communication will force operators to give concise and precise directions to their robots instead of step by step instructions.  The robots in turn must successfully relay what they are experiencing in the simulated disaster zone despite limited and interrupted communication. 

Each team will feature a different solution and model, which DARPA’s Robotics Challenge program manager Gill Pratt believes will profile several potential solutions to disaster relief assistance for the future.  “The teams all have different hardware approaches, different software approaches and different approaches for the user interface,” Pratt said.  “[S]o I think we'll see a whole range of different ways that technology will be applied to this problem.”

In addition to communication deficiencies, teams will face other challenges that disaster response teams might encounter in real-world situations.  Robots will have to navigate through a series of obstacles while transitioning to and from a vehicle that will transport the robots from a safe zone to the disaster zone.  They must also carry their own power supplies.

DARPA believes that the technology solutions featured during these challenges will transform the robotics field and “catapult forward development of robots featuring task-level autonomy that can operate in the hazardous, degraded conditions common in disaster zones.”

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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