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DARPA Robotics Challenge: The Future of Robotics is Almost Here

By Daniel OudolskyPublished March 11, 2015

In this blog post, Daniel provides background information and analysis on the DARPA Robotics Challenge competition organized by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. What this Challenge seeks to accomplish is to promote innovation in human-supervised robotic technology for disaster-relief operations, but the potentialities of this scientific discoveries achieved by this operation will do much to spearhead the development and usage of robotics by humans in all fields.
By Daniel Oudolsky, 3/11/15

For decades, humanity has been fascinated and enthralled by robots, as potentialities of robotics and AI on enriching and expediting advancement in science and technology. It has been a popular subject in cultural works - in books such as  Isaac Asimov's sci-fi novel I Robot, to movies such as Disney's Big Hero 6 and Avengers: Age of Ultron. However, robotics may soon become a reality due to initiatives such as the DARPA program.

The Department of Defense's DARPA, short for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is the government agency responsible for the research and development of emerging technologies in the military. One of their current initiatives is called the DARPA Robotics challenge, where 25 robots from different teams around the world will compete together this June in California. These teams come from a variety of nations, not just the U.S.- Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, China, Japan and South Korea.

The purpose of this competition is to test autonomous technologies that will help in disaster relief efforts and search and rescue operations. All these robots will be tested on their usage and durability through a series of disaster rescue tests. However what is interesting to note is that these robots are still being human-controlled, meaning they are not fully autonomous and self-aware, able to act on their own. To simulate a disaster scenario, DARPA will intentionally degrade communication links between the robots and the teams controlling them. During this year's competition, each robot will have one hour to complete the test course. First, the robots must be able to drive a automobile in a simulated disaster zone, walk 30 feet over a field of debris and rubble. Then, the robots must rotate a circular valve, hook up some wires, cut a hole through a wall, climb up stairs and exit a building in a certain time period. There will also be a surprise task, for which tnne of the teams are aware about. By doing so, DARPA is also assessing whether these robots can act "semi-autonomous" and function well despite the poor communication links. Only three teams will win this competition, and DARPA will grant a sum of a $3.5 million cash prize[5].

Such initiatives such as the DARPA Robotics challenge are crucial in accelerating the development and integration of robotic technology for human use. According to DARPA, the goal of this challenge is to " generate groundbreaking research and development in hardware and software that will enable future robots, under supervision of their human counterparts, to perform the most hazardous activities in disaster zones, thus reducing casualties and saving lives"[6]. Machines that have demonstrated an ability to respond to those types of events can potentially save the lives of many victims and relief workers alike. The actual implementation of robots in disaster scenarios will likely take years to implement, but initiatives such as the DARPA challenge are important in serving as a catalyst for such technological changes.  If robots can be successfully utilized in disaster scenarios, they may also be successfully utilized in many other dangerous fields and scenarios- thus accelerating the further development and use of robotics and AI in the decades to come. Most importantly, this will reduce the human and financial costs associated with disaster rescue scenarios, whilst making it more efficient and streamlined.