What is the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC)?
The DRC is a competition of robot systems and software teams vying to develop robots capable of assisting humans in responding to natural and man-made disasters. It was designed to be extremely difficult. Participating teams, representing some of the most advanced robotics research and development organizations in the world, are collaborating and innovating on a very short timeline to develop the hardware, software, sensors, and human-machine control interfaces that will enable their robots to complete a series of challenge tasks selected by DARPA for their relevance to disaster response. Three sequential DRC events place equal emphasis on hardware and software:
Technologies resulting from the DRC will transform the field of robotics and catapult forward development of robots featuring task-level autonomy that can operate in the hazardous, degraded conditions common in disaster zones.
What Is the DRC Trying to Achieve?
History has repeatedly demonstrated that humans are vulnerable to natural and man-made disasters, and there are often limitations to what we can do to help remedy these situations when they occur. Robots have the potential to be useful assistants in situations in whichwhere humans cannot safely operate, but despite the imaginings of science fiction, the actual robots of today are not yet robust enough to function in many disaster zones nor capable enough to perform the most basic tasks required to help mitigate a crisis situation. The goal of the DRC is to generate groundbreaking research and development in hardware and software that will enable future robots, in tandem with human counterparts, to perform the most hazardous activities in disaster zones, thus reducing casualties and saving lives.
How Will DARPA Characterize Success in the DRC?
Because disasters are so unpredictable in their manifestation and effects, the type of robots DARPA envisions to aid in these situations must be adaptable and require four key capabilities to be effective:
The DRC Trials will test all of these capabilities, but primarily mobility, manipulation, and dexterity. The DRC Finals will be a more robust and demanding test of all four capabilities.
What Is the State of Robots Today Relative to Where DARPA Wants It to Be?
Impressive as they are, most robots today are either limited to pristine and precisely controlled settings like factories and research labs, employed in simple, repetitive tasks, or used as mechanical stand-ins for humans who must direct their every move. These kinds of robots cannot deal well with unpredictability and unstructured environments.
The unpredictability of the real world requires a robot that can maneuver effectively in environments it has not previously encountered, use whatever human tools are on hand without the need for extensive reprogramming, and continue to operate even when degraded communications render motion-level control by a human not feasible. Getting to that goal requires an attribute called “supervised” or “task-level” autonomy. The term means, for example, that a human operator could issue a robot a command like “Open the door” and the robot would be able to complete that task by itself, taking into account the sensing and motions involved in identifying a door handle, applying the right force, and appropriately maneuvering its limbs. Task-level autonomy is the opposite of tele-operation, in which an operator gives a robot step-by-step commands in terms of what motions to take and specifically when and where to place its limbs.
What Results Might the DRC Deliver?
The DRC Trials gave DARPA a baseline on the current state of robotics and determine which teams will continue to receive DARPA funding to expand on their potential. Imposing and unusual as the robots competing in the trials might seem, they will move slowly through the tasks. Like a one-year-old child beginning to walk and interact with the world, there will be stumbles and falls. When the DARPA Grand Challenges first tested driverless vehicle technology, the competitors got off to a shaky start, but there was extraordinary improvement in the year between the two challenges. Similarly, the DRC Trials will mark the beginning of an historic transformation in robotics.
By the time of the DRC Finals, we expect the robots will demonstrate roughly the competence of a two-year-old child, giving them the ability to autonomously carry out simple commands such as “Clear the debris in front of you” or “Close the valve.” The robots will still need to be told by human operators which tasks to chain together to achieve larger goals, but DARPA’s hope is that this demonstration will show the promise disaster response robots hold for mitigating the effects of future disasters.