Thursday, April 19, 2012

DARPA and Pentagon announce competition to create Autobots

Approximately two weeks ago, DARPA and the Pentagon announced the beginning of a new civilian robotics competition, with the intent of creating robotic systems capable of operating tools and vehicles in a disaster zone.  According to Gill Pratt, a DARPA director in the defense sciences office, the initial concept for the competition came from the Fukushima disaster, and the potential solutions a robotic system could have provided in the highly irradiated areas of the plant.

Distinguishing itself nominally from DARPA’s previous “Grand Challenges,” which have targeted autonomous vehicles, this “Robotics Challenge” will address 8 fundamental needs for assisting future rescue or disaster relief efforts in dangerous environments: driving a vehicle to a simulated disaster site, moving across rubble, removing rubble from an entryway, climbing a ladder, using a tool to break through a concrete wall, finding and closing a valve on a leaking pipe, and replacing a component like a cooling pump. 

With technological breakthroughs in sensors and perception technologies driving down the cost of autonomous robotic development worldwide, robotic engineers are reportedly buzzing over the recently announced competition.  Despite no official start date or declared prize, Aaron Edsinger, a founder of a small robotics company in San Francisco, has already begun brainstorming for the competition.  “Analogs to animals such as spiders, monkeys, bears, kangaroos and goats are useful inspiration when considering parts of the challenge,” he said. 
While the possibility of a nightmarish robotic spider bear capable of driving a vehicle and knocking down a wall will inevitably invoke sleep terrors in just about everyone who has ever seen even just the cover of a science fiction book or movie, the fact remains that robotics capabilities will continue to reshape the way we look at problem solving.  While Japan boasts a highly advanced robotics industry, no robotic platforms capable of replacing humans in even the simplest of tasks were available.  Recognizing this, DARPA has made sure to specify the competition is a global one, and is hoping for international involvement from many countries.  “We’re opening the aperture as wide as we can,” Pratt said.
I distinctly remember a very engaging presentation a couple weeks ago by an exceedingly intelligent (and handsome!) fellow student that focused on the creation of a sustainable robotics industry.  In this announcement, DARPA continues to recognize the strategic necessity for robotic systems for future usage.  Furthermore, acknowledging the initial start up difficulties in this task, and the benefit of a myriad of innovators, DARPA says it will distribute a software simulator and test hardware platform with legs, torso, arms and head to assist some of the teams in their development efforts.  Asked for comment on this groundbreaking new challenge, Miles Bennett Dyson, special projects coordinator at Cyberdyne Systems said he saw no possible outcome in which this could result in the creation of an AI system capable of launching a massive nuclear strike, eliminating all of society…..

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