Robots to tackle disaster response in search for $2m prize

Posted on 6 May 2015 by Tim Brown

Next month, robot experts from around US and the world will come together in California to compete for a $2m prize in the final of the DARPA Robotics Challenge.

The competition, organised by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the US Department of Defense, will run from June 5-6, 2015, where teams will compete to demonstrate the best human-supervised robot technology for disaster response.

The DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) is a competition of human-robot systems developed to help emergency personnel respond to natural and man-made disasters. Participating teams from some of the most advanced robotics research and development organizations in the world are designing hardware, software, sensors, and human-machine control interfaces to be tested in a series of tasks selected by DARPA for their broad relevance to disaster response operations.

“Six months ago at the DRC Trials, we began physically testing human-supervised robots against disaster-relevant tasks. Their impressive performance gave us the confidence to raise the bar,” said Dr. Gill Pratt, DRC program manager. “A year from now at the DRC Finals we will push the technology even further.”

While the tasks at the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals will be similar to the Trials, a number of new elements will challenge the team’s systems:

  • Robots will not be connected to power cords, fall arrestors, or wired communications tethers;
  • Humans will not be allowed to physically intervene if a robot falls or get stuck—robots that fall will have to do so without breaking and will have to get up without assistance;
  • Speed will be more heavily weighted in the scoring, and all tasks must be completed in a total time of approximately one hour (versus four hours in the DRC Trials);
  • Communications will be further degraded and intermittent.
  • Completing the tasks in the time allotted will require innovations on several fronts, including in the human-robot interfaces teams use to control their robots.

“For the first time, teams will be empowered to exploit cloud and crowd-augmented robotics, two highly promising research areas that allow onsite operators to leverage remote data, computing, and human resources,” said Pratt. “These research areas are in their infancy, but after the DRC Finals we hope to see significant innovation.”

The 11 finalists are:

  1. IHMC Robotics (Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition, Pensacola, Florida)
  2. Tartan Rescue (Carnegie Mellon University, National Robotics Engineering Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
  3. Team MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts)
  4. RoboSimian (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California)
  5. Team TRACLabs (TRACLabs, Inc., Webster, Texas)
  6. Team WPI-CMU (formerly Team WRECS, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, Massachusetts)
  7. Team Trooper (Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Laboratories, Cherry Hill, New Jersey)
  8. Team ViGIR (TORC Robotics, Blacksburg, Virginia; TU Darmstadt, Germany; Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia; Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR)
  9. Team THOR (University of California, Los Angeles, California)
  10. Team Valor (Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia)
  11. Team KAIST (Daejeon Metro City, Republic of Korea)

The winning team of  the DRC will receive a $2m grand prize but reportedly DARPA plans to also award $1m to the runner-up and $500,000 to the third-place team.

Robots to Drive Polaris Ranger at DARPA Robotics Challenge

The Polaris was used in the trials of the DARPA Robotics Challenge and will also be used in the final - image courtesy of Polaris.
The Polaris was used in the trials of the DARPA Robotics Challenge and will also be used in the final – image courtesy of Polaris.

Manufacturer of off-road vehicles, Polaris, has announced that its Polaris Ranger XP 900 EPS and GEM electric vehicles will be used as part of the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Finals to be held at the Fairplex in Pomona, California.

The Challenge Finals will have robots perform a number of tasks in a continuous course, simulating what might be encountered in a real disaster situation. DARPA will use the Ranger XP 900 EPS in one of the most difficult tasks to help demonstrate a robot’s ability to operate and to exit from a vehicle, since they are among the tools commonly on hand in disaster zones.

“We are excited to continue our relationship with DARPA after the successful DRC Trials in 2013,” said Rich Haddad, general manager of Polaris Defense.

“Off-road vehicles are some of the most useful vehicles in disaster relief, and our specialized Ranger vehicles were built to accommodate the robots and provide mobility for the driving task. In the future, the versatility of the Ranger platform would allow a robot to transport tools, equipment, supplies and power around a disaster site, while traversing the difficult terrain often found in disaster situations.”