The DARPA Robotics Challenge was inspired by the Fukushima nuclear disaster following the Japanese tsunami of 2011, when the general devastation prevented workers from reaching and operating the valves that could have prevented the gas explosion that damaged the reactors. Though robots were eventually brought to the site, they were slow to go into action because of the challenging learning curve and the degraded communications infrastructure.
This led DARPA to start a competition designed to spur development of semiautonomous robots capable of acting as teammates for disaster workers rather than tools. A virtual challenge with 26 teams using simulated robots kicked things off in June of 2013. This was followed in December 2013 by a physical challenge with 16 teams using real robots kept upright by safety tethers as they negotiated obstacle courses and carried out tasks using the tools at hand rather than specialized attachments.
This year's challenge will see 25 teams competing. Half of the teams are from the United States, five are from Japan, three from Korea, two from Germany, one from Italy, one from Hong Kong, and one from the People’s Republic of China. They will be vying for a US$3.5 million total of prizes; including a $2 million first prize, a $1 million second prize, and a $500,000 third prize. The robots will be of a wide variety with some humanoid, some four-legged, and some tracked, but all will need to operate free of external power, mechanical support, and limited communications with their controllers.
The basic idea behind DRC 2015 is to make things much harder for the robots than previously.
"A substantial fraction of them will have difficulty during the challenge. We do that on purpose," says DRC program manager, Dr. Gill Pratt. "DARPA takes high risks for high rewards, and that means that we also have a lot of challenges that we expect our performers to have. So, the challenge is quite hard."
During the two-day contest, the robots will be given one hour for eight tasks; one of which will not be revealed beforehand. Each robot will need to drive to the simulated disaster zone, make its way to a building, open a door, work a valve, and cut a hole in the wall. During this, communications will be deliberately degraded, so the robots need to operate with a high degree of autonomy instead of step-by-step remote control – all while dealing with obstacles
A major difference from the 2013 competition is that the robots won't be hooked to safety tethers, so If they fall down they have to get up on their own. If they can't, the team can simulate another robot helping it up and take a ten minute penalty. All of this requires improved interfaces, sensors, and software – they even use a boosted computer system designed to simulate capabilities of field gear projected five years into the future. In addition, the robots will use improved batteries, but this is may not be enough to offset the new rule disallowing recharges during the run.
DARPA is inviting the public to attend the event to show the difference between science fiction robots and the real thing, as well as dispelling fears about "killer" robots.
Gizmag will be on the ground reporting on the action – stay tuned.