Disaster response: Robots to the rescueAcademia and the private sector respond to DARPA humanoid robot challenge
By Doug Page
One day, perhaps after the next Sandy-scale superstorm, battalions of humanoid robots will be sent into the rubble to search for survivors or to begin cleanup. This army of robots will likely be the result of a Robotics Challenge announced in October by the U.S Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Teams from academia and industry will try to design and deploy robots capable of helping humans in any sort of disaster scenario, but especially in radioactive and bio-contaminated areas. DARPA rules mandate that robots must be able to mount, drive and dismount vehicles; navigate across rubble; open doors; climb a ladder; use tools to break through walls; locate and shut off a leaky valve; and remove and replace a faulty pump.
One team is a 10-school collaboration led by Drexel University, Philadelphia.
“As the Fukushima nuclear disaster showed, humanitarian assistance and disaster response have global impacts,” said Paul Oh, director of the Drexel Autonomous Systems Lab. “There were plenty of tools and first responders at Fukushima, but radiation prevented their deployment in the early stages of the accident.”
Oh said that if valves and machinery could have been turned off earlier, greater damage could have been prevented. That's where the humanoid robots come in. The DARPA contest is intended to kick the robotic paradigm far enough forward that the result is robots that resemble humans in their ability to walk, perceive and manipulate tools.
Such advances could catalyze the design and use of robots for a range of tasks beyond disaster response. “These tasks could include agricultural chores like crop care, construction, manufacturing, rehabilitative services and even elder care," Oh said.
Researchers from each of the 10 universities will work in regional teams to tackle discrete aspects of the challenge, which is broken into eight specific events related to disaster mitigation. Phase 1 of the 27-month competition will last 15 months, culminating in a competitive challenge that will test the robots’ ability to complete the eight events. DARPA will then select teams to continue to Phase 2 for another head-to-head competition a year later.
Aside from Drexel, the university team includes Purdue, Columbia, Delaware, Georgia Tech, Ohio State, Indiana, Swarthmore College, the Worchester Polytechnic Institute and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.
More information is available on the DARPA Robotics Challenge website.