While the world gears up for the London Olympics, humanoid robots are preparing to compete in their own Olympics.
But rather than gold medals, these robots will be fighting for gobs of money: $2 million, to be precise.
The first ever “Robotics Challenge” from the Pentagon’s military research arm DARPA (short for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is due to launch in October, and like the Olympics it will be a global competition. DARPA is encouraging participation from individuals and groups including universities and businesses large or small.
By extending the competition beyond the traditional robotics developer community, the event will hopefully showcase innovative and far more effective robots that can take the U.S. well beyond its current capabilities.
Winning teams will demonstrate robotic capabilities of the future that could someday support the Defense Department’s humanitarian mission: disaster relief, providing aid to victims and running evacuation operations.
So in what sort of events will these humanoid robots compete?
The Challenge aims to develop robots that can accomplish complex tasks in dangerous yet realistic built-up human environments -- the rubble of a war-torn city, for example. They must battle through a range of such disaster scenarios before earning the robo-Olympic gold:
Some robots will be challenged to drive a utility vehicle like an ATV and to master its controls, from the ignition and brakes through to steering.
Others may walk on uneven ground and navigate debris in their path, or clear an obstruction from a doorway and open it.
The robots of the future should also be able to break through a concrete wall to locate and then fix a leaking pipe.
Fine motor skills will also be tested, such as possibly removing and then replacing a small pump and climbing a ladder followed by successfully getting across a catwalk.
Another competition: Boarding and taking the driver's seat of an open-frame utility vehicle before driving to a specified location and navigate a 350-foot hallway littered with debris.
Not only will competitors will be expected to demonstrate their ability to use equipment, vehicles and hand tools commonly found in human environments, DARPA would like to see robots that demonstrate adaptability. Can they react on the spot to a complicated new tool?
Adaptability is important, because the complexity of any upcoming disaster cannot be entirely anticipated.
In order to achieve these results, progress will need to be made in robotic strength, endurance and dexterity. Advances will also need to be made so that operators who are not experts can control them, and to let robots continue to work effectively in spite of low bandwidth or disrupted communications.
To encourage all of this innovation, DARPA will support qualifying teams by offering robotic heads, arms, legs and torsos and even a virtual test-bed simulator.
The DARPA Robotics Challenge welcomes both robotics hardware and software development teams. Two types of proposals will be considered for development ranging from one to five years: small projects involving one or more investigators and large projects that include multi-disciplinary teams.
Advances in physical protection or productivity could be useful to the Defense Department -- particularly advances that are made in robots that can naturally interact and collaborate with humans.
Basic robots are already found in industry, education, healthcare, emergency response and defense.
Some have already proven their utility supporting U.S. forces by defusing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in war zones. And during the Fukishmima nuclear disaster in Japan, robots played a vital role supporting the mission.
Part of DARPA’s goal is to expand such use in humanitarian operations, particularly where there is a threat to the lives of human first responders due to biological, chemical or radiological attacks.
In such high-risk situations, state of the art robots could replace humans entirely, reducing risk and saving lives.
DARPA’s Robotic Challenge supports President Barack Obama’s National Robotics Initiative as well, a program launched in June 2011.
Its purpose is to accelerate the development of next-generation robotics that can work cooperatively with people and to encourage the use of these capabilities. A number of federal government agencies are involved, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
So if you’ve been tinkering with Rosie the robot in your garage, or assembling a working Wall-E, now is the time to unleash it on the world. Go for the $2 million prize -- and go for the gold.
Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has travelled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie