Bigger may be better, but better isn't always better. In October, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California unveiled a new and improved version of its RoboSimian robot. Called Surrogate, it has many advantages over its predecessor, but it's RoboSimian that is going to next year's DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals.
Also named "Surge," Surrogate was unveiled at the inauguration of Thomas Rosenbaum as the new president of the California institute of Technology. Like RoboSimian, it's designed to operate in close-quarters disaster areas, such as damaged nuclear reactors, that are too dangerous for human relief workers. The idea is a robot that can negotiate broken ground, go up stairs and ladders, and carry out tasks using tools at hand, such as clearing debris, opening doors, or operating valves.
According to JPL, Surrogate was built using leftover limbs that were spares from the development of RoboSimian for earlier rounds of the DARPA challenge and uses the same basic computer code and its data files for identifying and using tools. Where RoboSimian looks like a nightmarish cross between a chimpanzee and a spider, Surrogate is more roughly humanoid. It stands 4.5 ft (1.4 m) high weighs 200 lb (90.7 kg), has an upright spine, and two arms. It's much more dexterous than RoboSimian and is better at manipulation. However, after six months of construction and testing, it was determined that RoboSimian would represent JPL during the finals next year.
It turns out that where RoboSimian can lumber like an ape on its tentacle-like arms, Surrogate rolls on tracks. This gives it speed and stability, but it doesn't do very well on debris-strewn areas or in navigating stairs or ladders, which RoboSimian can climb over. In addition, Surrogate has a head with two stereoscopic cameras, where RoboSimian lacks a head, but has seven cameras for all-around vision.
"It comes down to the fact that Surrogate is a better manipulation platform and faster on benign surfaces, but RoboSimian is an all-around solution, and we expect that the all-around solution is going to be more competitive in this case," says Brett Kennedy, principal investigator for the robots at JPL.
Kennedy went on to say that despite their advanced designs, neither Surrogate nor RoboSimian are designed to work alongside humans. "These robots were specifically developed to go where humans could not, so we have not addressed the many technical and safety issues that come with working side-by-side with people."
The DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals will be held in Pomona, California in June 2015. The contestant robots will be required to drive a car, navigate an obstacle course, clear debris from a door, cut a hole in a wall, operate a valve, and perform other tasks, including one that will not be revealed beforehand.