DARPA Robotics Challenge: Robots Do The Dirty Work

By Cheryl Pellerin
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency pushes the boundaries of technology for the Defense Department, the military services and national security.

Here in Pomona, Calif., this week, DARPA is winding up a three-year technical challenge that has pushed the boundaries for robots in perception, dexterity, stability, mobility, decision-making and strength.

Twenty-three human-robot teams are competing in the Robotics Challenge for $3.5 million in prizes, working to get through eight tasks in an hour, under their own onboard power and with severely degraded communications between robot and operator.

The playing field is a simulated disaster area, like the places where more capable future robots may be able to help save lives in the first hours or days after an earthquake or tsunami or terrorist attack.

DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar at the DRC Finals in Pomona, California. (Photo: Cheryl Pellerin/DoD/Released)

DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar at the DRC Finals in Pomona, California. (Photo: Cheryl Pellerin/DoD/Released)

While the robot teams ran their courses in the afternoon of Day 1, DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar described how robots are helping service members today and how they’ll continue to help down the road.

“Just to wind the clock back a little bit,” she said, “if you think about the ground robots that have made the biggest difference in DoD so far, it’s the robots that have been used to disarm [improvised explosive devices].”

IED robots are very different than the robots in the DRC Finals, Prabhakar added — relatively simple and tele-operated.

“They didn’t move fast but they solved a really important specific problem, and think about our military service members whose lives they were able to save,” she said.

DARPA’s mission is breakthrough technology for national security, the director added. “We make our investments sometimes in basic technologies like the robotics capabilities you see here, sometimes in very specific military systems like when we demonstrated the first stealth aircraft a number of decades ago.”

In either case, Prabhakar said, “DARPA wants to get the technology progress happening so ultimately it can make a huge change in national security. Now, how is that going to happen from here?”

The robots here today are starting on a long journey, and the director said she thinks it’ll be a long time before very practical ground robots can do the kinds of things people do.

“As that starts developing then I think the opportunities for the military and for DoD can be really significant,” she said.

For robots in the military, Prabhakar said, DARPA sees opportunities in areas like logistics and “lots of different tasks that service members are involved with today and we think we can relieve them from very dirty, dull, dangerous work.”

For live updates from the #DARPADRC, follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter.

Watch Team MIT’s time lapse from Day 1 of the Finals.

Watch the live stream of the Robotics Challenge.

Follow Armed with Science on Facebook and Twitter for more on the #DARPADRC!
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