DARPA’s Humanoid Robots Take a Slow-Motion Leap Forward
DARPA’s Humanoid Robots. “If you don’t know DARPA, you should. “
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is a division of the military charged with coming up with the coolest, most useful possible new technologies for our defense forces. It’s a U.S. government agency that routinely fires on all cylinders, backs good ideas, and improves the lives of us all.
The great thing is that DARPA frequently winds up producing rich fruit for the entire world to use; its past projects have spawned such hits as Google’s self-driving cars, GPS, Siri, and, by the way, the Internet. (Here’s a really entertaining interview I conducted with Dan Kaufman, one of DARPA’s directors.)
Now, DARPA is tackling robots. Not mechanical arms in car factories and the like—real robots, the kind we’ve seen in movies for decades, the kind little kids picture when they hear the term “robots.” We’re talking about humanoid, two-legged, walking, thinking machines.
Why? In 2011, an earthquake and tsunami in Japan triggered a meltdown at the Fukishima nuclear power plant. Workers fled the plant before they could shut it down. And that got DARPA thinking: If only we had robots that could go in and finish the job, we could save a lot of lives.
So DARPA did what DARPA does best: It offered a Challenge, open to anyone daring enough to enter — universities, companies, or individuals. It offered $3.5 million in prizes to teams who could successfully complete eight tasks in a simulated power-plant rescue scenario:
1. Drive a vehicle to the plant, stop and park;
2. Get out of the car;
3. Walk to the plant’s doorway, open its human-sized handle, and walk through;
4. Turn a valve handle one full rotation;
5. Pick up a power drill, turn it on, and cut a hole out of a sheetrock wall big enough for a person to escape;
6. Climb over (or push aside) a room full of rubble;
7. Exit by climbing a metal staircase; and
8. A surprise task.
The surprise changed on each day. On Day One, robots were asked to pull down a lever in a fuse box; on Day Two, they had to pull a power cord out of a socket and plug it into a neighboring socket.
The fun began in 2013, at the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials. At that competition, the robots had wires coming out of them to provide power and allow them to communicate with their human operators, who were driving the robots by remote control. The robots had harnesses, so there was no risk of falling over and smashing. They had 30 minutes to complete each of the eight tasks.
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