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Unmanned Systems 

DARPA to Take on Major New Robotics Initiative 


By Stew Magnuson 

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced a major new initiative to create robotic autonomous manipulators that mimic the human hands, an agency program manager said.

For the past several decades, the research agency and the robotics community have concentrated their efforts on programming ground robots to get from point A to point B, said Robert Mandelbaum, a DARPA program manager who focuses on robotics and autonomous systems. That challenge has for the most part been tackled, he said.

The autonomous robotics manipulation program will take on a new goal, creating an inexpensive hand-like device that is as adaptable as a human appendage.

“We are looking for software that can span a variety of spaces. We’re not looking for any particular application,” he said at an Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference.

In other words, for any single task, engineers can design a robotic tool that can do better than a hand. For example, for putting in a screw, they would simply design an arm with a screwdriver on the end.

“We want general adaptability. We want a hand that can do multiple tasks,” Mandelbaum said.

There are myriad possible applications including counter-mine, the ability to remove rubble in search-and-rescue missions, weapons support, explosive ordnance disposal, casualty care and prostheses. They are also needed in extreme environments such as space, he said.

As far as prosthetics, there has been progress in pushing World War II-era technology for artificial arms into the modern age. There are now robotic appendages, but for each individual action there must be a command. DARPA wants to create arms and hands that will mimic the human mind’s ability to pick up a grape without having to think about what each individual finger must do, he said.

“We would like to give that kind of low-level control to prosthetic arms to really give them the ability to have the same dexterous manipulation as regular people,” he said.

Unlike industrial robots with arms that do the same action over and over again, the challenge will be to create arms that can do one task well, and then be able to a completely different job immediately afterwards, he said.

The program will ask teams working on the program to accomplish three major operations.

The first will be for the robot to open up a duffel bag, search through the contents and find a revolver that is hiding inside. That requires the ability to handle flexible material like clothing, which has been a challenge for robots in the past, he said. That will require “force feedback,” or the ability to feel for objects, rather than just relying on visual cues. It will also require bimanual coordination, the ability to use two hands at once. It must use one hand to hold onto the bag and the other to open the zipper.

The next task will be rubble removal in a search-and-rescue scenario. The robot will have to pick up oddly shaped objects with both arms. The third challenge will require that the arms insert one object into another — in this case a shell into a mortar.

There will be two tracks: software and hardware.

For the software, DARPA will provide the hardware in the form of robotic arms that the teams can upload its software into. The agency doesn’t want the competitors to spend their time and money integrating software into different models of robotic arms. The robot will start out with one arm picking up and using rigid objects “just to get the teams’ feet wet” and then graduate to two arms and more difficult to manipulate objects such as cloth, he said.

The main challenge in the hardware track will be creating inexpensive arms.

If these hands are to be ubiquitous, they cannot have astronomically high price tags, he said.

Reader Comments

Re: DARPA to Take on Major New Robotics Initiative

When is skynet coming online?

Sarah Conner on 02/24/2010 at 11:47

Re: DARPA to Take on Major New Robotics Initiative

"DARPA will provide the hardware in the form of robotic arms that the teams can upload its software into."
Standardization is a big focus for the DoD. I'd like to hear more on how they selected the hardware platform.
Is there any more information on the standard hardware that will be given to teams competing in the software aspect of the competition? Is it designed with COTS technologies or is it designed in-house? Were there any external contractors/companies that helped design it?

Emilie Kopp on 02/24/2010 at 10:59

Re: DARPA to Take on Major New Robotics Initiative

DARPA has really pushed robotics as a high priority for research and I think one day we will look back and see benefits comparable to those seen from work on space flight by NASA. It helps a lot to have government backing into this kind of research.

Japan, Korea and others put huge government funding into robotics; especially this kind of robotics (human-like manipulators). In the U.S. and abroad, great robotics work is happening at the university level and in private business. Still – nothing talks like money and support from the government.

Intel seems to be a not-so-dark-horse in the coming evolution of robotics. Dieter Fox, who works for them, spoke at RIA’s Robotics Industry Forum about some very exciting developments that should be seen sooner than later. (See “Intel Labs May Help Bing Personal Robots to Your Home Soon” on Robots in America (RIA’s blog site:

When DARPA held the Grand DARPA Challenge to cultivate work on autonomous vehicles not one vehicle made it to the finish line the first year. The second time around several made it to the end and there were many respectable performances. Maybe one day we’ll see fleets of vehicles using the lessons learned. I hope this robotics initiative to develop a robotic hand goes well and keeps the U.S. in front of the other countries funding robotics.

Full disclosure: I am director of marketing & PR for Robotic Industries Association ( I see so much interesting work it is hard not to get excited!

Brian Huse on 02/17/2010 at 18:13

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