Robotics Challenge: Creating the Disaster Response of the Future

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Driverless Cars

At the event, seven Atlas clones will compete in a challenge on a racetrack near Miami. The competing teams' contribution will be writing the software to analyze the sensor data and to control a total of 28 limbs.

Joining the seven Atlas robots at the starting line will be the 10 creations from various researchers and companies. They include dapper robo-astronauts, bug-eyed, muscular humanoids, ape-like robots and spindly machines resembling insects. The event will attract the sort of bestiary one might expect to see at a casting call for the next "Star Wars" trilogy.

With the challenge only a few days away, the teams are feeling anxious about the tight schedule. "We only received our robot last summer," says Stryk. "Getting him ready by the date of the challenge will be difficult." It's quite possible, he adds, that many of the competitors will fail just as miserably as their counterparts did at DARPA's first big robotic challenge.

At that event, held 10 years ago, the challenge was to complete an obstacle course with fully automated vehicles in the Mojave Desert. Many of the contestants failed at the starting line, while most of the others crashed into fences or embankments after only going a few meters, their engines still howling. Not a single vehicle came even close to the finish line.

Nevertheless, the desert spectacle was more than just a race for aimlessly wandering, driverless cars. It marked the beginning of a dynamic technical success story. Only a year later, five vehicles completed the more than 200-kilometer (125-mile) route. The winner has since developed a car for Google that has already traveled more than 800,000 accident-free kilometers on American roads.

A New Era

This time, DARPA also hopes that its challenge will provide an impetus to the industry. Solving the tasks at hand will be "hard but not impossible," DARPA program manager Gill Pratt told the magazine IEEE Spectrum, noting that the event presents precisely the right challenge "to push the field forward." According to Pratt, just as driverless cars were on the threshold of a new era a decade ago, robots are now coming into an era in which machines will take on new tasks.

So far, robots have been used primarily in industry, where large, powerful and expensive monstrosities perform highly specialized tasks. Barriers separate the machines from people. They have nothing in common with the intelligent humanoids portrayed in Hollywood films.

But now a new species of robot is taking shape in R&D laboratories. Smaller, lighter and more flexible, they will be designed to be true partners for their human coworkers on factory floors. They wince when touched, and springs make their limbs so pliable that they no longer need to be fenced in.

The researchers in Darmstadt founded a company called Bionic Robotics to build cheap robots for use in manufacturing. The American competitor Rethink Robotics has already gone a step further. Its humanoid robot, "Baxter," has even learned to operate a coffeemaker.

The new robots being developed today increasingly resemble their creators, whose inspiration is not derived from science fiction films as much as it is from practical considerations. Developers have long weighed the potential for using robots in the household and in nursing care at home.

And the more the machines make their way into our everyday lives, the more a human-like form is proving to be useful. Buttons, doorknobs and tools are meant to be used by human beings, so a machine designed to handle them ought to resemble a person as much as possible.

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