The Pentagon’s advanced research agency said on Wednesday that it will offer a prize of $2 million to the winners of a contest testing the performance of robots that could be used in emergencies like the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan.
The Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, which is responsible for helping the nation avoid unpleasant technological surprises, had previously announced its Robotics Challenge, but on Wednesday it added details and announced the selection of teams that will compete in separate “tracks” of the contest.
In one competition the contestants will build their own robots, while in a second they will design software to control a humanoid-style robot supplied by the government and developed by Boston Dynamics, a developer of advanced mobile robots. Boston Dynamics is known for the Big Dog robot it developed for Darpa, which walks on four legs and is able to carry heavy loads on uneven ground. More recently it has gotten Internet attention for a robot named Cheetah. In a video, Cheetah runs on an indoor track at 28.3 miles per hour, faster than Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest human. Another video shows a robot designed for Darpa by Boston Dynamics that stands on two legs and avoids obstacles.
Two other contests will take place in a computerized simulation system and are intended to be broadly open to a range of entrants from around the world.
Gill Pratt, the Darpa program manager who is directing the Robotics Challenge, said in a telephone press conference on Monday that the program was not intended to develop futuristic robot war fighters.
Currently the United States military has both airborne and undersea robotic weapons systems, but it has made less progress in ground-based weapons. Thousands of robots are now used in Iraq and Afghanistan to deal with land mines, and there are some experimental vehicles that carry equipment being used in war zones. But the military has done little to design robotic soldiers for use on the ground.
“We’re aiming for a challenge on a different technical problem right now,” Dr. Pratt said. One of the missions of the United States military is to respond with humanitarian assistance to events like natural and manmade disasters, and in situations like the Fukushima disaster. In that emergency, robots were sent to the plant but its technical experts had to be trained to use them, which took valuable time. Dr. Pratt said that a generation of robots that were simpler to operate and had the capability to use tools that are often already available at disaster sites would make a big difference in speeding the response to a future crisis.
The robot supplied by the government and developed by Boston Dynamics.
Darpa has sponsored a number of similar challenges. The highest-profile contests focused on autonomous vehicles in 2004, 2005 and 2007. They are widely seen to have served as a catalyst that has jump-started commercial development of self-driving cars. A number of automobile manufacturers as well as Google are now nearing commercialization of self-driving technologies.
In one of the new Robotics Challenge tracks, the agency has chosen Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center, Drexel University, Raytheon, Schaft, Virginia Tech, NASA’s Johnson Space Center and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to design their own systems. The robots are not required to be humanoid forms, and several of the competitors are creating machines that look anything but human. For example, a prototype from JPL has three legs and one arm.
Teams from these organizations will be supplied with an advanced robot from Boston Dynamics and will be required to program it in the contest: Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Laboratories, RE2, University of Kansas, Carnegie Mellon University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, TRAC Labs, University of Washington, the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, Ben-Gurion University, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and TORC Robotics.
The robots will be required to do things like drive vehicles, climb over debris, operate power tools and control machines and valves.
The agency is also organizing a separate contest inside an online virtual world that will allow a wider range of contestants to design software avatars to perform rescue missions, Dr. Pratt said.
“There has been tremendous work in the gaming field, and we believe that a lot of the talent in that field can be brought in to play here,” he said.
In the real-world version of the challenge, it will not be mandatory for the robots to be autonomous, but systems that are designed to operate without direct human control will be scored higher, Dr. Pratt said. The agency will adjust the wireless bandwidth available to control the robots in an effort to simulate real world conditions. For example, in the Fukushima disaster, thick walls made it difficult to control robots that were designed to communicate wirelessly with human operators.
The issue of autonomous weapons systems has been controversial because of the Pentagon’s use of airborne drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Earlier this year a report issued by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board said the military had been slow in deploying technologies that would allow weapons more autonomy. It noted that in some cases, it requires teams of several hundred weapons operators to support a single airborne drone mission.