DARPA wants rescue robots, offers $2M prize

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is offering a $2 million prize for the design of an advanced rescue robot.

Participating engineering teams will compete in various challenges involving staged disaster-response scenarios in which robots navigate a series of physical tasks corresponding to anticipated, real-world disaster-response requirements. 

As DARPA program manager Gill Pratt notes, robots played an important supporting role in mitigating fallout from the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan, and are currently used by the US military forces to help defuse improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

“True innovation in robotics technology could result in much more effective robots that could better intervene in high-risk situations and thus save human lives and help contain the impact of natural and man-made disasters,” explained Pratt.

“What we need to do now is move beyond the state of the art. This challenge is going to test supervised autonomy in perception and decision-making, mounted and dismounted mobility, dexterity, strength and endurance in an environment designed for human use but degraded due to a disaster.”

According to Pratt, robot adaptability is absolutely essential as rescue workers rarely known where the next disaster will strike. As such, the key to successfully completing this challenge requires adaptable robots with the ability to use available human tools, ranging from hand tools to vehicles.  

“Robots undoubtedly capture the imagination, but that alone does not justify an investment in robotics,”added DARPA Acting Director, Kaigham J. Gabriel.  

”For robots to be useful to DoD they need to offer gains in either physical protection or productivity. The most successful and useful robots would do both via natural interaction with humans in shared environments.”  

DARPA’s Robotics Challenge will kick off in October 2012. Additional details can be found here on the official contest website.