In the past, we've seen a variety of robotic arms that can do a variety of things, from chucking cinder blocks across a room to being controlled by thought. But behind the majority of these mechanical feats was a human guiding the robot's every move, step-by-step. That might be fine inside a laboratory, but what about somewhere a little less convenient, like a war zone, for instance? That's why DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has begun development on autonomous robotic arms that require only simple commands to performs complex tasks, like searching a bag or defusing explosive devices.
Robots are increasingly used by the military as a means to keep soldiers out of harm's way, but each bot tends to have a highly specific set of functions due to programming limits. DARPA's Autonomous Robotic Manipulation (ARM) program hopes to create one or more types of bots that can perform multiple tasks when needed with very little human interaction.
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As DARPA sees it, this would require two main components: a robotic limb that could adapt to a wide range of uses and software that guides that limb's movements on its own.
For the hardware, the program is mainly focused on developing a multi-fingered hand and arm with greater dexterity. The software designers hope to program a series of individual actions will allow a robot to manipulate various objects with quick commands, such as "open the door" or "screw in the bolt," without any detailed guidance. The program's final goal is a true (i.e. autonomous) robot that performs better on its own than with a human operator.
So far, DARPA states it has succeeded in building robots that can carry out tasks with one arm and hand, but researchers are still testing robots with two arms and hands for more complicated actions. It will especially be interesting to see if DARPA applies this technology to the arm-equipped UAV it demonstrated a few months ago, possibly resulting in a robot that can fly off on its own to wherever it's needed.
If the video below of ARM changing a tire is any indication though, there's still some work to be done before an autonomous robot will match the speed of a human.