DARPA Competition Showcases Robotic Prowess

By Sandra I. Erwin

POMONA, Calif. – A robotics competition sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency provided a glimpse into the future of disaster relief operations. It also raised questions about the broader implications of the advancing technology.

The DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals — held in Pomona, California on June 5 and 6 — drew thousands of spectators to watch 24 teams from around the world show off their engineering prowess and compete for millions of dollars. The co-located DARPA technology expo created a carnival-like atmosphere where members of industry, academia and government set up booths to display their high tech gear.

Team Kaist of Daejeon, Republic of Korea, and its robot DRC-Hubo, took first place and the $2 million in prize money. Coming in second and taking home $1 million was Team IHMC Robotics of Pensacola, Florida, and its robot Running Man. The third place finisher, earning the $500,000 prize, was Tartan Rescue of Pittsburgh, and its robot CHIMP. The top three teams accomplished the most tasks in the least amount of time.

The designs of the robots varied greatly. Some robots took humanoid form while others locomoted on four limbs or used wheels and tracks to move around.

The task list that the machines had to perform on the DARPA-designed course were intended to mimic a disaster response scenario in which a robot would need to go into a hazardous area and operate with a great deal of autonomy in a communications-degraded environment. The scenario was a humanitarian relief operation similar to the one following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

The tasks included driving a truck, opening doors, shutting off valves, using power tools and climbing stairs.

DARPA is hoping that the innovation spurred by the contest will further advance robotics technologies.

“Two dozen teams from around the world are going to change what’s possible,” Arati Prabhakar, the director of DARPA, said at the competition. “Tomorrow we’re going to live in a world where there’s a path to the future where robots actually can work with us and do the hard work that’s involved in disaster relief to save lives … It’s going to be a huge change.”

 Although the DARPA competition was focused on responding to disasters — one of the Defense Department’s core missions — officials believe robots could have other military uses.

“One of the greatest applications is in logistics,” Gill Pratt, a robotics program manager at DARPA, told National Defense Magazine in an interview. “Because of the movies, we [as a society] focus on robots on the battlefield. But in fact most of the true need for robotics in the Department of Defense is in lowering the cost of the [support] tail.”

He cited transportation, equipment repair and maintenance as areas where robots could increase productivity and cut down on manpower costs.

When it comes to war fighting, Pratt said people shouldn’t expect to see a “Terminator” machine on the battlefield anytime soon.

“Artificial intelligence, despite all of the press, is not anywhere near that right now,” he said. “In terms of military [combat] operations, I think there’s very, very few cases to be made for the kind of machines that we see here now.”

A number of competition participants interviewed by National Defense said they did not intend for the technologies they’re developing to be used as combat platforms in the future.
“I think we are able to be responsible [and] to use the technology correctly to benefit future generations,” said Zhibin Li, a researcher on locomotion and a member of the Italian WALK-MAN team at the competition. He said the possibility that advances in robotics could be used to kill people in the future should not be used as an excuse to hold back on development.

“The same risk is everywhere in every tool we use,” he said. “Instead of having a knife in your kitchen to do the catering, you can harm a person. So we cannot stop advancing just because of these possible applications.”

To push the technological envelope forward, DARPA teams with other organizations on a number of robotics projects.

The research institute SRI International is receiving money from the agency to investigate ways to improve energy efficiency in robots. Robots are about 100 times less energy efficient than humans when performing tasks, according to Gill, which makes it challenging to power them for long periods of time.

“We are very much focused on developing custom electronics, custom hardware to be able to actually make highly efficient actuation,” said Mark Baybutt, a project leader in SRI’s robotics program.

“We’re looking to really kind of pioneer what is possible and then being able to provide those component technologies to the robotics industry to really adapt and then use in a number of different applications.”

The institute had its humanoid PROXI robot on display at the DARPA technology expo, which walked on a treadmill to demonstrate its endurance.

Despite DARPA’s interest in robotics, overall Defense Department investments in ground robots have dropped sharply, said Mark Claffee, a program manager for manipulation technologies at iRobot.
“It’s been a pretty significant shift” since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down, he said. “The market just collapsed, basically.”

iRobot’s military sales declined nearly 25 percent last year. They accounted for only 8 percent of company revenue, compared with 40 percent in 2011, according to a Morningstar report. To pick up some of the slack, the company is trying to market its defense-related robots to local first responders and police departments as well as overseas buyers, Claffee said. “The international defense market is certainly growing, but it’s slow and steady."

Topics: Robotics, Armed Robots, Unmanned Ground Vehicles

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