DARPA Announces Major New Robotics Initiative

By Stew Magnuson

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced a major new initiative Tuesday to create robotic autonomous manipulators that mimic the human hands, an agency program manager said.
For the past decades, the research agency has concentrated its 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 navigation challenge has for the most part been tackled, he said. The autonomous robotics manipulation program will take on a new challenge, creating a 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, prosthesis, and in extreme environments such as space, he said. The teams working on the program will be asked to accomplish three major tasks.
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 such as clothing, which has been a challenge to robots in the past, he said. That will require “force feedback,” or the ability to feel for objects, rather than just rely on visual cues. It will require also bi-manual coordination, the ability to use two hands at once. That would require 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 ask 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. It 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.
The main challenge in the hardware track will be creating low cost arms. If these hands are to be ubiquitous, they cannot cost $500,000, he said. DARPA will hold an industry day focusing on the program Feb. 18. Details will be posted on DARPA’s web site.
For more on this, and other robotics programs, see the March issue of National Defense Magazine.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Ground Vehicles, Science and Engineering Technology, DARPA

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