DARPA Lays Down New Robotics Gauntlet

August 13, 2012
By Max Cacas, SIGNAL Online Exclusive

The 2012 Olympics may be over in London, but the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has laid down a competitive challenge of a different sort—this time for the world's robotics experts.

This fall, the Pentagon's top science and research organization officially launches the DARPA Robotics Challenge. The goal, according to DARPA's broad agency announcement posted on FedBizOps, is "to develop ground robotic capabilities to execute tasks in dangerous, degraded, human engineered environments."

DARPA is offering a $2 million prize for the group or firm that successfully develops and demonstrates a robot that can:

  • Drive a utility vehicle
  • Travel dismounted over a pile of rubble
  • Remove debris blocking an entryway
  • Open a door and enter a building
  • Climb an industrial ladder, and travel across an industrial walkway
  • Use a tool to break through a concrete panel
  • Locate and close a valve near a leaking pipe
  • Replace a component

This isn't the first time that DARPA has used a prize challenge to encourage scientific innovation and development. In 2004, the DARPA Grand Challenge asked researchers to develop autonomous vehicles capable of traversing mountainous and desert terrain; a successful team from Stanford University took the $2 million prize. In 2007, a combined team from Carnegie Mellon University and a private firm, Tartan Robotics, earned $2 million in the DARPA Urban Challenge, in which competitors had to successfully navigate a simulated urban traffic environment.

As many as 45 groups and companies already have informed DARPA, through preliminary proposals, that they are interested in participating in the robotics competition. While some entrants in the new Robotics Challenge will also be accepting financial and equipment assistance from DARPA in preparing their entries, others are taking the independent route and are funding their own entries.

One of the independent entrants, Perrone Robotics Incorporated of Charlottesville, Virginia, is no stranger to DARPA robotics competitions. The firm entered successful robotic vehicles in both the Grand and Urban challenges.

Paul Perrone, founder and chief executive officer of Perrone Robotics, says DARPA is trying to stimulate the development of robots "that can operate in a supervised fashion in unstructured environments."

He says that the competition committee has informed entrants that it's looking for robots that could perform search and rescue missions in burning buildings or even extreme emergency environments, like the compromised reactor rooms of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan damaged following last year's earthquake and tsunami.

Perrone and his team are in the early stages of raising funds and designing his company's entry in the DARPA challenge, but he offers some initial insight into how he thinks teams will meet contest requirements.

"You have to talk about smaller, lightweight robots; things that can climb, things that can manipulate tools," he explains.

In DARPA's vehicle-focused robotic challenges, the robots were expected to perform all their functions completely autonomously using vehicle-mounted sensors and computers to make all driving decisions without human intervention. In the Robotics Challenge, DARPA is allowing "supervised autonomy,” which blends decisions made by a human operator in the same way that the military and law enforcement use radio-remote controlled robots in hazardous environments with some computer-based decision making.

Perrone explains that DARPA is giving extra points to entries that can demonstrate and exercise more autonomy than others, because one key concept behind the competition is to design a robot that can operate on its own in hazardous environments where communications may be intermittent or nonexistent.

"The fidelity of your communications link between human being and robot can dramatically affect how much supervision a robot requires," Perrone says, adding that the Mars rover, Curiosity, which recently landed on the Red Planet, is a perfect example. With a delay of 15 minutes between camera images sent from the rover to Earth, and another 15 minutes for a command to go from Earth to the rover on Mars, it can take as much as a half hour for a simple change of direction. By giving a rover as much autonomy as possible, developers can give it the ability to cope with certain situations when it is out of contact with the human operator.

Perrone says that contrary to popular belief, more powerful microprocessors are not the key to success in robotics. Rather, he says, "the real challenge is the artificial intelligence and the algorithms and the software" that help guide the robot.

The DARPA Robotics Challenge is expected to take place in two phases with the first phase beginning in October of this year and running through December 2013. The second phase of the competition will take place between January and December of 2014.

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