Calling All Disaster Recovery Robots

DARPA concept image showing two humanoid robots assisting in disaster relief: closing a pipe valve (left) and using a power tool to break down a wall (right).

A few weeks ago, DARPA (the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) announced that it would hold competitions for autonomous robots that would give aid to victims of natural or man-made disasters and conduct evacuation operations.Calling it the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), the agency is looking for anyone who can advance current robot technology past existing limits to create an autonomous bot for the DOD’s “disaster recovery mission.” The primary technical goal of the DRC is to develop ground robots capable of executing complex tasks in dangerous, degraded, human-engineered environments.

The winner takes all: a $2 million cash prize.

The DRC is scheduled to launch in October 2012 with events planned for June 2013, December 2013 and December 2014.

One of the main objectives of this program is to develop humanoid robots or at least robots that can work in a human environment.  Dr. Gill Pratt, Program Manager in the Defense Sciences Office at DARPA, explained the reason for this in an interview with IEEE Spectrum:

“The three big ideas here are, first, we need robots that are compatible with shared environments, even though the environments are degraded, and second, we need robots that are compatible with human tools. The reason for that is that typically we don’t know where the disaster is going to be, and right now the stock of tools, all the way from vehicles to hand tools, are really made for people to operate, for maintenance or construction, and so we want the robot to be able to use all those tools. The third thing is compatibility with human operators in two ways: one is that the robot is easy to operate without particular training, and second is that the human operator can easily imagine what the robot might do. For that to be true, the robot needs to have a form that is not too different from the human form. But I think that some variation actually might work.”

Speculative Fiction

What will the future be like if we have humanoid robots assisting in disaster relief?  Let’s say that a military accident releases swarms of microscopic robots called forger nanites into the environment.  They make their way towards a research lab, which after hours is run by science intern Kutisha. As three swarms head her way, the military dispatches hover-tanks carrying human sized robotic mechs as disaster relief. Alone, late at night, she places her faith in the mechs, watching the battle between the big and little machines unfold on her doorstep. The question may not be who will win, but who to trust.

Yes, this is a plug for Death Has No Shadow.

Sources:  DARPA’s announcement, Interview with IEEE Spectrum


2 thoughts on “Calling All Disaster Recovery Robots

  1. Seems an very interesting book. I like science fiction, or anything that combines science and stories, two of my favourite things. Scientists should write more fiction I believe, it makes them think more widely and outside the box. very beautiful blog by the way! And you write very clear.

    1. Thank you, Backflier.

      I see that you’re from the Netherlands. Your English is pretty good. Yes, I also believe that a strong science foundation helps make a good science fiction story. Start with strong characters, an interesting conflict, and ask the question “What if?”

      Best Wishes on Your Endeavors,

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