Wanted: Robot. Willing To Pay $2M

Written by Jessica L. Tozer

Hey you, robot enthusiast!

Do you want two million dollars?  Can you build amazing robots?  If so, have we got the most awesome contest FOR YOU!  No, seriously.  This isn’t the premise for a 1980’s SciFi action flick.  This is for real, folks.

Hey, haven’t I seen you in a video game somewhere? (Artist’s concept image courtesy of DARPA)

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is offering millions to the person who creates a robot designed to handle disasters of epic proportion.  The kind humans can’t handle, no matter how noble or determined we are.  No, not the asteroid-hurling-to-Earth type (although truthfully that would currently fall into the things-we-can’t-handle-no-seriously-Bruce-Willis-isn’t-going-to-save-us category).

All epic movie montages aside, DARPA really is looking for robots that can handle things that are too dangerous for humans, like the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant last year.

This is more than just the work of a machine.  This robot has to go above and beyond the call of autonomous duty in order to handle the kind of crisis we’re talking about.  As awesome as that sounds, it’s not quite as unprecedented as you might think.

The truth is, the use of robots in serious situations is nothing new.

Robots are used by U.S. military forces as assistants for service members in diffusing improvised explosive devices.  That’s not to say that the current robot cavalcade can’t be improved upon, and I guess that concept is what brings us to this blog post today.

True innovation in robotics technology could result in much more effective robots that could better intervene in high-risk situations.  This could save human lives, and help contain the impact of natural and man-made disasters.  So, are we headed to a new age of human-robot coexistence?  The handy helper AIs who come at the touch of a button?  Possibly even reach new technological heights with our  new autonomous friends?

I immediately think “helpful robots in space” (Robby the Robot style), but maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

Seriously, who wouldn’t want to trust this guy? (Photograph by Patty Mooney, Crystal Pyramid Productions, San Diego, California)

As iconic symbols of the future, robots rank high with flying cars and starships, but basic robots are already in use in emergency response, industry, defense, healthcare and education. DARPA plans to offer a $2 million prize to whomever can help push the state-of-the-art in robotics beyond today’s capabilities in support of the DoD’s disaster recovery mission.

DARPA’s Robotics Challenge will launch in October 2012.  Teams are sought to compete in challenges involving staged disaster-response scenarios in which robots will have to successfully navigate a series of physical tasks corresponding to anticipated, real-world disaster-response requirements.

The DARPA Robotics Challenge consists of both robotics hardware and software development tasks. It is DARPA’s position that achieving true innovation in robotics – and thus success in this challenge – will require contributions from communities beyond traditional robotics developers.

The DARPA Robotics Challenge supports the National Robotics Initiative launched by President Barack Obama in June 2011.

To answer questions regarding the Robotics Challenge and provide an opportunity for interested parties to connect, DARPA will hold a virtual Proposers’ Day workshop today, April 16, 2012.

This online workshop will introduce interested communities to the effort, explain the mechanics of this DARPA challenge, and encourage collaborative arrangements among potential performers from a wide range of backgrounds.  More information on the BAA and Proposers’ Day is available here.

So whether you’re just looking for a reason to build the world’s next greatest robot (and really, who isn’t?), or you just want to make the world a safer place for us humans, I’d check out this challenge.  I look forward to seeing the innovation and creativity that can come from this.

I’d also like to be the first blogger to officially request an interview with the two million dollar robot.  The robot, not the winner (although I *suppose* the winner can come, too).  I want to get on his/her good side.  You never know when your AI connections are going to come in handy, and if he/she is going to be saving humanity someday, I’d like to be on a first name basis.

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is also an avid science fiction fan and now slightly more paranoid about robot takeovers than she was before.  Just a little bit.

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2 Responses to Wanted: Robot. Willing To Pay $2M

  1. Nagle says:

    After looking at this in some detail, I think the locomotion tasks are quite feasible, but the manipulation tasks need more preliminary work.

    Walking has been done. Walking over moderately rough terrain on four legs has been done. Sitting down has been done. Automatic driving has been done. Opening a door with a key has been done in the DARPA ARM program. Climbing a ladder with a legged machine has been done as part of an art project in Europe. So most of the locomotion tasks are within reach.

    Closing a valve is probably feasible. Breaking down a wall is mostly about not falling down while experiencing reaction forces. But replacing a pump? That hasn’t been demonstrated.  Not even close.

    Progress in unstructured manipulation is disappointing. Installing parts in structured factory environments works fine. But replacement and repair, no. That ought to be further along. John McCarthy thought, forty years ago, that assembling a water pump with a robot would be a summer project. It didn’t work out that way. We should have automated auto repair by now. We don’t even have robots that can do an oil change.

    A good way to start is to get a two-armed robot like the one used for the ARM project to handle threaded fasteners in moderately difficult situations, wielding wrenches as needed.  Currently, the ARM effort seems to be able to pick up a screwdriver, but not use it. That’s not good enough.

    This looks like a solvable problem. I’m not going to discuss technology here, though.

    John Nagle
    Animats

  2. Tameka says:

    Hey i red somewhere that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is offering millions to the person who creates a robot designed to handle disasters of epic proportion. The kind humans can’t handle, no matter … Teams are sought to compete in challenges involving staged disaster-response scenarios in which robots will have to successfully navigate a series of physical tasks corresponding to anticipated, real-world disaster-response requirements.