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DoD Seeks Robots With ‘Supervised Autonomy’

Challenges involve staged disaster-response scenarios in which robots will have to successfully navigate a series of physical tasks

The U.S. Department of Defense plans to award a $2 million prize for the design of an advanced rescue robot containing “supervised autonomy.”

The DoD’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is overseeing the “Robotics Challenge” that is scheduled to launch in October 2012. DARPA is seeking teams “to compete in challenges involving staged disaster-response scenarios in which robots will have to successfully navigate a series of physical tasks corresponding to anticipated, real-world disaster-response requirements.”

The Robotics Challenge consists of both robotics hardware and software development tasks, says DARPA. Achieving true innovation in robotics, and thus success in the challenge, will require contributions from communities beyond traditional robotics developers, the agency says.

Robots played a supporting role in mitigating fallout from the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan, and are used by U.S. military forces as assistants for service members in diffusing improvised explosive devices, according to DARPA. The challenge is structured to increase the diversity of innovative solutions by encouraging participation from around the world including universities, small, medium and large businesses and even individuals and groups with ideas on how to advance the field of robotics, the agency says.

“This challenge is going to test supervised autonomy in perception and decision-making, mounted and dismounted mobility, dexterity, strength and endurance in an environment designed for human use but degraded due to a disaster,” said Gill Pratt DARPA program manager.

True innovation in robotics technology could result in much more effective robots that could better intervene in high-risk situations and thus save human lives and help contain the impact of natural and man-made disasters, DARPA says. In addition, “adaptability is also essential because we don’t know where the next disaster will strike. The key to successfully completing this challenge requires adaptable robots with the ability to use available human tools, from hand tools to vehicles,” Pratt says.