Rescue Robots Activate! The Pentagon Calls for Disaster-Ready Bot Squad

A robot would need to be able, for example, to break down a door or climb a staircase, to recognize human objects like “levers and valves,” and to do human stuff like drive a car or use a power tool, according to the contest announcement.

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Oct 30 2012, 12:00am

As Sandy’s windy tentacles expand their strangle-hold on New England, the Pentagon is calling on the country’s top engineers to build an ensemble of rescue robots that would deploy when the next big one hits.

DARPA is hosting a public competition to see who can build the best robots for use in emergencies like the Fukushima nuclear crisis, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the Chilean mine collapse. Such unforeseen catastrophes, DARPA says, “highlight our fragility” as a species and necessitate a new order of safety precautions that the Pentagon plans to build around a Justice League-esque team of humanoid robots. The team that builds the best bot walks away with $2 million.

The Fukushima disaster was a uniquely tricky one for humans to confront due to the threat of sustained radiation after the tsunami had come and gone. Robots from Massachusetts company iRobot were sent to inspect the nuclear plant but humans at the site had to be trained how to use them, which cost valuable time. “Appropriate training would have saved days and potentially could have minimized the venting of some of the radioactive gasses,” iRobot CEO Colin Angle said.

Imagine this guy saving your life.

DARPA seems to be acutely aware of the stigma and skepticism towards an era in which people become dependent on super-strong, semi-autonomous humanoid robots. DARPA’s Robotics Challenge Director Gill Pratt assured a press conference that the competition isn’t a step on the path towards creating an army of humanoid war machines. “We’re aiming for a challenge on a different technical problem right now,” Pratt said.

Last week, the Pentagon announced that the seven teams will actually compete in separate “tracks” during the qualifying round in December 2013 as well as the actual performance, planned for 2014. The first involves building a robot; the second requires teams to design software to control a robot designed by robot built by Boston Dynamics, the Pentagon’s go-to robot developer behind the four-legged BigDog and Cheetah robots, among other amazing bots. BigDog can carry massive loads of rubble over uneven ground, while Cheetah is a speedy messenger-type bot capable of running 28.3 miles per hour — faster than Usain Bolt, the fastest human on record.

So why are all the contestant robots designed in the human image, you might wonder? Why not some slinky quadruped model or a laser squid like the infantry robots from The Matrix? Because the environments these robots would deploy into are designed and scaled to accommodate us humans. A robot would need to be able, for example, to break down a door or climb a staircase, to recognize human objects like “levers and valves,” and to do human stuff like drive a car or use a power tool, according to the contest announcement. Sounds a lot like the U.S. Navy’s program for the MacGyver bot. Besides, tiny nanobots that crawl through rubble to find human survivors already exist.

A couple of the prototypes and concepts look like sisters to Robocop and the Power Rangers and come with American Gladiator names like THOR, Guardian Hubo and Robonaut. Others, look like little robo-pets.

Japanese engineers at a robotics company called Cyberdyne are taking a similar tack to prepping for the next nuclear meltdown. (Motherboard paid Cyberdyne a visit in 2009.) Earlier this month, the company announced a collection of remotely-operated robots designed to deploy to the scene of a disaster to conduct damage assessments and gauge radiation levels. In the same announcement, the company also introduced its Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL) exoskeleton, a full-body suit that a person would wear to stay safe and radiation-free in nuclear zones. Nevermind that Cyberdyne is the name of the U.S. defense firm whose system becomes self-aware and wages war on the human race in the Terminator movies, or that HAL is the name of the maniacal computer system from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s all just a big coincidence.