Uncle Sam wants you to make a military robot capable of walking on two legs, handling power tools and even driving vehicles. Luckily, the U.S. military's new robotics challenge aims to save lives rather than hunt down human warriors, Terminator-style, on the battlefields of tomorrow.
The $2 million challenge by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency appeared in an official online solicitation Tuesday. DARPA wants a humanoid robot to replace humans doing dangerous work in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, industrial accidents or natural disasters — or a combination of disaster scenarios such as the meltdown at Japan's Fukushima nuclear facility after the tsunami.
DARPA expects the robot to show how it can move a cinder block or similar obstacle out of a doorway, open the door by using the handle, and climb a ladder using its arms and legs. The robot must also prove as handy as Tim the Tool Man by using power tools to break through a concrete panel or wall, find and seal off a leaking pipe and manually replace a cooling pump.
The robot even has to prove capable of steering, accelerating and braking from the driver's seat of a vehicle — a job much more complex than just putting a robotic "brain" inside a driverless car. Such robots can take orders from human operators, but DARPA will award more points for robots that can handle all these tricky tasks by themselves.
The U.S. military already has thousands of drones soaring above today's battlefields, as well as wheeled robots to scout buildings or disable improvised explosive devices. But legged robots represent the next stage in robot evolution — the U.S. Navy already has plans to build its own robotic firefighter capable of doing humanoid tasks such as climbing ladders and throwing extinguisher grenades.
For its challenge, DARPA plans to hold a "Virtual Disaster Response Challenge" to test robot software in a virtual simulation, as well two "Disaster Response Challenges" set in a real-world training grounds.
Teams without their own robots can test out their software on a robot expected to be provided by Boston Dynamics — a robotics company already working on a robotic mule and a fast-running robotic cheetah for the military. That humanoid robot will resemble Boston Dynamics' pre-existing humanoid robot models, known as Atlas and PETMAN.
Companies can apply for five contracts worth $3 million if they plan on making both robotic hardware and software, or can apply for 12 contracts worth $375,000 if they plan on only trying out software. DARPA has also made room to accept up to 100 teams with no funding that can compete with funded teams for later contracts worth $750,000 and $1 million in the later stages of the challenge.
Competitors with deep pockets can also go on their own without military funding and still try to win the final $2 million prize. But given the steep challenges ahead, they'll need all the money and confidence they can get.
The challenge is expected to begin on Oct. 1, 2012, and last until about Dec. 31, 2014.
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