DARPA seeks car-driving, life-saving robots

Robotics Challenge looks for machines that can evacuate people in emergency situations

In the years ahead, if you're trapped in the rubble of an earthquake, it might be a robot that drives up and pulls you to safety.

That's the vision of the people behind DARPA's Robotics Challenge, a high-tech contest that will award as much as $34 million in prize money in various categories, including $2 million to the winning team that can build a better robot to serve in emergency response situations. The U.S. military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is looking for robots that can drive vehicles, use human tools and traverse rough terrain and rubble to assist in evacuation operations.

The challenge, which will come in two phases, begins in October. DARPA expects the challenge to extend through 2014. The challenge consists of both robotics hardware and software development tasks.

"The work of the global robotics community brought us to this point -- robots do save lives, do increase efficiencies and do lead us to consider new capabilities," said Gill Pratt, DARPA program manager, in a statement. "What we need to do now is move beyond the state of the art. His challenge is going to test supervised autonomy in perception and decision-making, mounted and dismounted mobility, dexterity, strength and endurance in an environment designed for human use but degraded due to a disaster."

DARPA noted that the robots don't need to be humanoid machines, but they do need to be able to get in and out of vehicles unaided, as well as start a vehicle, steer, brake and refuel. The machines also need to be able to use human tools.

According to the agency, the driving course the robots must traverse will first be free of obstacles, but as the challenge advances, the robots will need to navigate their vehicles around both set and moving obstacles.

The robots also will be challenged to traverse a course apart from their vehicles, opening doors, entering buildings, climbing ladders and locating and closing a valve.

DARPA is holding a virtual workshop to answer questions and lay out specifics of the challenge April 16. Researchers interested in the challenge can find more information at the Fedbizopps.gov site.

obots using human tools
This illustration shows two humanoid robots using human tools. (Image: DARPA)

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon