Today’s disaster robots are small creatures, resembling insects and matchboxes more than people. Since they’re so tiny, these bots can investigate disaster zones and report back to humans, but they can’t do much more than that. Tomorrow’s disaster robots? They’ll be humanoid superheroes, driving around through rubble in utility vehicles, breaking down doors, attaching fire hoses, climbing ladders, drilling through barriers with power tools, and closing valves near leaky pipes.
That’s the vision of DARPA, the U.S. Department of Defense’s advanced research agency. After putting out a call earlier this year for its Robotics Challenge, which asks entrants to create robots that "can use standard tools and equipment commonly available in human environments, ranging from hand tools to vehicles," DARPA followed up this week with details, and images of robots created by organizations that have already signed on to compete for the $2 million prize. Think about how useful an advanced robot could be in situations like Japan’s Fukushima disaster—traversing through rubble to close leaky valves—and you have an idea of why this is so important.
The competition entrants, pictured in the slideshow above (captions courtesy of DARPA), have the potential to do that. DARPA will put them through the wringer in December 2013, testing the robots to see if they can perform the tasks listed previously (climbing ladders, closing valves, etc.) before a final challenge in 2014. The robots don’t need to be autonomous, but those that can operate without a human master will be scored higher.
A second piece of the competition challenges organizations that can’t necessarily build their own bot to create software that can control a humanoid robot built by Boston Dynamics. You can get an idea of what Boston Dynamics robots are capable of in the video here, which depicts a bot named Pet-Proto.
DARPA is known for its out-there projects, including cybernetic binoculars, a human body on a chip, a biofuel cell that lives inside a snail, three autonomous vehicle competitions (starting in 2004) and going further back in time, ARPANET, also known as the predecessor to the Internet.