Robotics Challenge: Creating the Disaster Response of the Future

PHOTO: This robot was created by Schaft, a Japanese company recently acquired by Google.
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Seventeen rescue robots are competing in Florida this weekend, where their task is to clear away debris, break through walls and climb ladders -- a test run for their use in future disaster scenarios. But the humanoid figures are still a little shaky on their feet.

"Atlas" is attached to a hook, like a piece of meat, with his metal limbs dangling limply from his torso.

Suddenly the 150-kilogram (330-pound) robot comes to life. The hydraulic system whines, an orange light starts blinking on the robot's head and a laser scanner shaped like a tin can rotates in its face. The knees begin to bend slowly, as Atlas cautiously places his two flat feet onto the ground.

But now the device begins to falter. Atlas completes three triple steps in slow motion until he reaches a ramp. Behind a Plexiglas wall, researchers watch as the robot scans the obstacle with its laser.

Finally, Atlas hazards to take one step up the incline, followed by a second and a third. But he makes his fourth step at a dangerously crooked angle, puts weight on the poorly placed foot and falls down. A safety cable cushions the robot's fall, and in the end Atlas is hanging from a hook once again.

Is this what the beginning of a new era looks like? The researchers working on the Atlas project believe it is.

Responding to Disasters

The robot was developed by Boston Dynamics, which was recently purchased by Google. It is still being tested, but will have its big debut at the end of this week, when it will be expected to demonstrate what it can do at a competition in Florida. Embarrassing glitches like a misstep can't happen there.

"Mistakes are part of the learning process," says Jesse Hurdus, project director of the ViGIR robot team. "Vi" stands for Virginia and "G" for Germany, because German experts from the Technical University of Darmstadt are part of the team.

"Competitions inspire us, and they force us to tackle concrete problems," says Oskar von Stryk. The 49-year-old German robotics expert is attending a training camp in a warehouse on the outskirts of Christiansburg in the US state of Virginia.

The disaster at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant marked the beginning of the "Robotics Challenge." Developers were rankled by how helpless robots were as they wandered through the radioactively contaminated reactor building. As they swerved around aimlessly in the steam, cables broke and the operators lost contact with the robots.

It was a disgrace, and strategists with the US government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) were determined that it would not happen again. They compiled a list of eight tasks that robots would have to master in the future to be capable of performing well in disaster response.

The tasks required in those situations, such as shutting valves, connecting hoses and removing debris, seem relatively straightforward, and yet they are hopelessly overwhelming to any conventional robot. At next weekend's competition, it will become apparent whether the world's top teams have managed to teach these abilities to their creations.

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