The latest DARPA challenge is to create a disaster response robot and, surprisingly, it's not the hardware that forms the main part of the task. DARPA has built a robot called Atlas and the challenge is to program it.
Atlas is in the same line as BigDog and Petman being built by Boston Dynamics. It is technically advanced and, yes, it does look a bit like a robot from the Terminator movies. However it really is just a shell waiting to accept a program that makes it a useful tool.
The specification for Atlas reveals that it is close to human proportions, but very much heavier at 330lb including its hydraulic power source. It uses 28 hydraulically controlled joints with close loop position and force control.
It has an onboard computer and of course a 10G fiber optic network. Its head is full of sensors including a LIDAR and stereo camera. Currently it is powered via a 15Kwatt umbilical cord but in a later version this would be replaced by a self-contained generator of some kind.
The first part of the challenge was to use a simulator to find the best research teams. (You can still download and use the smulator without having to sign up to the challenge.) Seven teams have now been selected to work with the real Atlas. The teams have until December to produce software that solves the challenge. The solutions will then be tested against a mock disaster environment at the Homestead Miami Speedway on December 20-21st. The actual tests will be slightly different from the sample tests which are:
- Drive utility vehicle
- Travel dismounted through various terrains
- Remove debris blocking entryway
- Open doors, enter building
- Climb ship’s ladder/stairs
- Break through wall
- Locate and close valve
- Connect firehose
You can see that this is no easy set of tasks and it will be a surprise if any of the teams actually complete any of these in a way that produces something that can be deployed in practice.
There are also other tracks of the DARPA challenge that allow contestants to construct their own hardware, but the Atlas challenge is particularly interesting because it focuses on where the real problem in creating a rescue robot lies - in the software.
So will they actually manage to give Atlas a brain?
Probably not, but the DARPA self-driving vehicle challenge got nowhere, at first but ultimately resulted in Sebastian Thrun's and Google's self driving car.
Let's hope that the same technological advances come from this initiative.