Last week, we reported on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Robotics Challenge, which will launch this October with a $2 million prize — plus up to $32 million in related R&D work — “to whomever can help push the state-of-the-art in robotics beyond today’s capabilities in support of the [Department of Defense’s’ disaster recovery mission.” Now our colleagues at IEEE’s Spectrum have published a Q&A with the DARPA program manager leading this challenge, Gill Pratt:
Q: DARPA funds lots of robotics programs. What’s the goal and focus of this new effort? [more following the link]
A: The program is really aimed at developing human-robot teams to be able to help in disaster response. Here the human is at a distance from the robot and will supervise the robot to do a number of tasks that are quite challenging. And we think it will be very exciting. … It’s important to note that this isn’t just for a nuclear power plant situation. The next disaster may not be a nuclear plant. For that reason, we want to leverage the human tools that are likely to be out there. It’s all about adaptability — what’s the most adaptable system that can be used during that first day or two of the disaster when you have a chance to reduce the scope of the disaster by taking action. That’s what the challenge is about.
Q: Is the program designed to advance humanoid robot technology? Do robots entering the challenge have to be humanlike machines?
The DARPA Robotics Challenge is decidedly not exclusive to humanoid systems. The three big ideas here are, first, we need robots that are compatible with shared environments, even though the environments are degraded, and second, we need robots that are compatible with human tools. The reason for that is that typically we don’t know where the disaster is going to be, and right now the stock of tools, all the way from vehicles to hand tools, are really made for people to operate, for maintenance or construction, and so we want the robot to be able to use all those tools. The third thing is compatibility with human operators in two ways: one is that the robot is easy to operate without particular training, and second is that the human operator can easily imagine what the robot might do. For that to be true, the robot needs to have a form that is not too different from the human form. But I think that some variation actually might work. For instance, if it had more arms than we have, or if it had more legs than we have, or if it had a mobility platform that was different than legs and could get around in the same environment and use the same tools that we use, that would be fine to do those types of tasks. We are not pushing a particular robot architecture or type; rather we’re saying what the interface needs to be like, both for the operator and for the tools and environment.
Q: The disaster response scenario you came up with looks really hard. Is it realistic to expect teams will succeed?
A: Some people have said, incorrectly, that we expected that teams would not be able to complete the first challenge [during Phase 1 of the program], but that’s actually not true. The challenge will be adjusted as we gain experience with the teams over this first phase, before the first live challenge in December 2013. What we’re going to make sure is that the live challenge is difficult but not impossible. And then we expect that in the second live challenge we’ll be doing the same thing, and that in fact we’ll show off skills and performance that are better than what we had before.
Q: Still, from the scenario, it looks like the technology required is too far off, and though you might be able to have a robot do one or two tasks, performing them all with a single robot seems really far-fetched.
A: We think that it’s actually “DARPA hard,” but not an impossible thing to do. And the reason that we’re spending the funds on this is actually to push the field forward and make this capability a reality. We’re also trying to widen the supplier base for the capability that would help here. So we picked a pretty hard goal, that’s absolutely true. It’s a goal that has a lot of risk, but a lot of reward as well, and that’s really the theme of what DARPA tries to do. If we look at the driverless-car world before the DARPA challenges occurred, there were a lot of research efforts that showed the cars moving a small distance down the road, on a curve, and maybe recognizing some fraction of the time where they were with respect to the road. And I think that the previous challenges really pushed the field forward to the state where now other firms have picked this up and are making those cars. Some day, not too far from now, we’ll just get in our car and sit and talk to the person who’s next to us and not worry about how to drive. And that would be an amazingly great thing. I expect the same sort of thing will happen with the new challenge we’re launching.
(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)