December 21, 2013
Hundreds of DARPA staff build scientifically designed task sites from scratch to test prototype disaster-response robots
Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla., prepared this past week for a competition unlike any it has ever seen: the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Trials. Instead of dozens of state-of-the-art cars racing and maneuvering at blazing speeds and covering hundreds of miles, the DRC Trials puts slow prototype robots through a series of simple tasks such as opening doors or walking a short distance. The two-day event, which started today, aims to speed development of robots that could perform a number of critical real-world emergency-response tasks after future natural and man-made disasters.
“While a professional racetrack may appear at first to be an unusual site for an international robotics competition, it actually suits DARPA’s needs quite well,” said Gill Pratt, DARPA program manager. “The garages provide ready-made private spaces for each team to work, and open directly to the pit lane and infield where we have set up the tasks. Homestead in particular has the benefit of comfortable weather this time of year with little chance of precipitation—which is essential for the robots at this early stage in their development.”
The preparations to transform the racetrack from hosting NASCAR to next-generation disaster-response robots started 18 months ago, with the work kicking into highest gear the week before the competition. Nearly 250 DARPA staff members worked day and night, unloading trailers full of wood panels, valves, doors, stairs and even rubble to create the task apparatuses from scratch. The crews laid miles of fiber optic cable tying every garage to every task, which enabled each team’s operators to work remotely and test their robot’s ability to act autonomously.
Joining the DARPA staff were 16 of the 17 DRC teams—more than 400 people in all—complete with team trailers packed with equipment. The onsite DRC Exposition showcased 37 organizations’ technology related to disaster response, robotics and autonomy.
“The DRC Trials are one of the biggest robotics evaluations on Earth and dwarf many military robot tests, both in scale of ambition and the actual effort involved,” said Adam Jacoff, a robotics research engineer with the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) who led the design and development of the tasks. He noted that in addition to NIST, DARPA is collaborating with the Air Force Research Laboratory, U.S. Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic, and the Southwest Research Institute.
DARPA designed the tasks to simulate what a future robot might have to do to safely enter and effectively work inside a disaster zone. They will test the robots’ autonomous perception, autonomous decision-making, mounted and dismounted mobility, dexterity and strength. Each team will receive a score based on its performance, with all eight tasks carrying equal weight. Up to eight teams with the highest scores may continue to receive DARPA funding to prepare for the DRC Finals scheduled for late 2014.
“We’re here to help developers, show them what’s working in their systems and what’s not, and send them home with checklists of what they can work on for the Finals,” Jacoff said.
All tasks have three parts and progressively increase in complexity, Jacoff said. The tasks are meticulously designed to leverage standardized scientific test methods that NIST and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have developed for response robots. Following these methods aligns everyone’s expectations and efforts, he said, and enables teams to clearly determine whether their innovative ideas work.
The DRC Trials are free and open to the public. More information is available at www.theroboticschallenge.org.
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