One day you might find yourself in a situation where you will have to rely on a robot to save your life. Seems like an outlandish statement? It isn't.
The people at DARPA (The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) are working to realize the dream where robots realize their full potential in assisting humanity. The DARPA Challenge is a key part of getting us into the future of robotics.
DARPA, a subdivision of the United States Defense Department was created in 1958 by Dwight Eisenhower with the mission of developing new technologies through corporate outreach. One of the programs has morphed into the DARPA Robotics Challenge where various teams of scientists and programmers from around the world representing some of the best minds in robotics attempt to create robots capable of responding and providing assistance to a wide variety of natural disasters. The challenge’s 100 teams have been whittled down to thirteen from such places like MIT and Virginia Tech.
The hope is that the challenge will be able to produce new technologies that will assist emergency workers in the daunting task of finding and rescuing injured people from situations such as earthquakes, floods, and fires. The robots will have to be able to function in extreme environments and sometimes go into places where humans could not. We still have not yet reached the point in robot development where these machines can operate on their own, but the DARPA Challenge is a key component in researching and producing technologies that will enable the science of robotics to reach the next level. The Challenge also assists the robotic community in establishing valuable benchmarks for the overall state of robotics. Contrary to popular belief, robots are still not ready for use in the field and are still more at home in their sanitized laboratories. The DARPA Robotics Challenge is one of the few venues that enables researchers to field test their creations under simulated conditions. This is key in the strategy of driving the technology forward.
The teams are given a short timeline to develop all the various systems needed to build the robot followed by a series of challenges created by DARPA to test the machines’ various capabilities. The Virtual Robotic Challenge, which focused on software guidance systems, occurred last June while the next set of trials will be December 20 at Homestead Miami Speedway where the robots will, in essence, run a complex obstacle course. As natural disasters vary environment wise, DARPA considers mobility, dexterity, ability to use tools, and the ability for humans to properly interface with the robots with a minimum of training as its chief criteria. While the robots do have some degree of partial autonomy, there is still the need for a human operator. In fact, simply getting the robot to the point where it can respond to simple commands, an ability called “Task-level autonomy,” is no easy feat. Asking a robot to “open a window” and it being able to actually complete the task requires more software work than you would at first think. After all the software not only has to be able to get the machine to mimic the ability, but also take into consideration the machine’s size and strength. Ultimately, the trials are critical to gauging all if these specific elements.
NASA is one of the teams competing and they have developed a 6 foot 2 inch human like robot designed for Search and Rescue called the Valkyrie. Named after the warrior handmaidens of the Norse God Odin, the Valkyrie were known to spirit the souls of felled warriors who fought bravely on the battlefield.
In theory, the Valkyrie robot will be able to venture into dangerous situations and rescue humans. The project leader for NASA’s team, Niclaus Radford, helped design the Valkyrie specifically for the DARPA Robotics Challenge making the robot nimble enough to meet all the challenges. The Valkyrie was built in less than nine months in a lab technicians called “The Bunker.” NASA decided to start with the design for the robot used on the International Space Station called Robonaut which also had a humanoid figure and was capable of operating in Zero G environments. Technically this is the second Valkyrie robot as the first was designed for exploration of Jupiter’s moon Europa and came complete with a laser to cut through the planet’s many glaciers. As it stands, the new Valkyrie will be limiting its operations solely to Earth. And for that reason the new Valkyrie uses a lighter frame and is equipped with stronger legs designed for maximum mobility in a degrading environment.
The robot is equipped with a formidable system of cameras mounted on the head, limbs, and body that give a high level of detailed information to the operators that they can combine with the machine’s sonar and lidar units to get the best possible overview of dangerous environments. Unlike other robot designs, the Valkyrie runs on an internal battery. In addition to functionality the Valkyrie was designed “to look cool” according to Radford. Designers even placed a spotlight in the center of the robot’s torso to give it an “Iron Man” sort of feel. The Valkyrie also is able to wear clothing that not only protects the robots from harmful elements, but also buys into a psychological rationale that when it saves somebody they will feel more comfortable touching soft cloth than say the cold hard steel exterior.
It still remains to be seen how Valkyrie will perform against the other entries, but the NASA team are very optimistic. The finals will occur sometime next year and will further test the robots’ physical capabilities and communication systems. The winning team will receive a $2 million prize. The next round of challenges will occur on December 20th.