DARPA’s Robotics Challenge (DRC), a competition aimed at facilitating the development of disaster rescue robots by dangling a $2 million grand prize, recently completed its first event, the Virtual Robotics Challenge. In a previous post we discussed the software used to control the simulated robot in the first phase of the competition.
The second phase, in which the field has been whittled from 26 teams down to 7, isn’t a simple simulation. Teams will be provided with an ATLAS robot, and at the December 2013 DRC trials, will have to demonstrate effective control using their own software. The tests involve programming ATLAS to perform a myriad of rescue-related tasks, such as driving, maneuvering on rubble and choppy terrain, moving debris, opening doors, climbing a ladder, using a power tool, and manipulating a pipe valve.
So, what exactly will these teams have to work with? What can ATLAS do?
The answers were revealed in a video recently released by Boston Dynamics,, one of the companies DARPA leans most heavily on to produce their cutting-edge robots. ATLAS eclipses the previously estimated size specs—it’s 74 inches tall, weighs 330 pounds, and has a wingspan that would make an eagle jealous. It has 28 hydraulically actuated degrees of freedom, which means it can perform a host of human movements, and its well-appointed head has cameras and a laser finder. This is a clear improvement over the previous prototype, which you can watch clumsily avoid obstacles in this video from October 2012.
One capability shared by ATLAS and its predecessor is the ability to make decisions about how to navigate difficult terrain. For example, the robot can choose to step on a 2 x 4 laid out under its foot, or it can sidestep the board altogether. For it to perform this feat, its sensors “see” the object, and then the software helps it determine the best course of action, as the automaton would ultimately have to do in real-life rescue situations.
ATLAS also builds on research and testing conducted on the PETMAN robot earlier this year. In the video below, it’s wears a gas mask and a chemical protection suit. PETMAN was designed to test protective clothing rescuers would wear in hazardous environments and is equipped with sensors that detect leaks. PETMAN’s “skin” functions much like human skin, sweating to regulate the temperature inside of the suit. PETMAN and ALTAS also share a fluid, human-like gait.
In the past few years, Boston Dynamics has developed a number of incredible robots, including the Cheetah Robot, which runs faster than Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt, the jumping Sand Flea Robot, and Big Dog (video below).
If DARPA ever sponsors a competition to make the scariest, most Terminator-esque robot, ATLAS could also serve as its first entry.