DARPA’s Robotics Challenge Seeks Machines for Disaster Response

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 10 2012 12:27 PM

DARPA’s Robotics Challenge Seeks Machines for Disaster Response

DARPA's Robotics Challenge

Image courtesy DARPA.

Today, DARPA released details about its upcoming Robotics Challenge, which comes with a $2 million purse. The task: create a robot that can assist in disaster recovery. DARPA’s press release says that competing teams’ creations will be put through “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.”

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

“The robots themselves don't need to take a human form, but many of the tasks DARPA's challenge addresses favor robots in humanoid form,” Martin LaMonica notes on Cnet’s Cutting Edge blog. But “humanoid” doesn’t have to mean a straight mechanical translation of the human form: “[R]oboticists say they may also lead to the robotic equivalent of the Minotaur—a hybrid creature that might have multiple arms and not just legs but treads,” John Markoff says in the New York Times.


Robots were used in the wake of the Fukuishima disaster (one operator wrote an anonymous blog about his work), but current technology meant that their role was somewhat limited.

According to the official announcement (PDF), tasks the robots may have to perform include:

1. Drive a utility vehicle at the site.
2. Travel dismounted across rubble.
3. Remove debris blocking an entryway.
4. Open a door and enter a building.
5. Climb an industrial ladder and traverse an industrial walkway.
6. Use a tool to break through a concrete panel.
7. Locate and close a valve near a leaking pipe.
8. Replace a component such as a cooling pump.

Speaking of task No. 1, drive a vehicle: James Donlon, program manager for DARPA’s Mind’s Eye program, recently discussed the challenges of machine vision at the Embedded Vision Alliance. During his talk, Venture Beat’s Dean Takahashi says, Donlon noted “that vision systems being tested now aren’t that bad at recognizing patterns such as a person about to be hit by a car that is backing up. But they still make mistakes that are sometimes comical, like mistaking a stationary object for a person or focusing on the wrong thing in a scene.”

Keep those lessons in mind, would-be Robotics Challenge participants.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.


Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Crowds March in 160 Countries to Demand Action on Climate Change


Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Americans' Inexplicable Aversion to the 1990s
  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
Brow Beat
Sept. 21 2014 2:00 PM Colin Farrell Will Star in True Detective’s Second Season
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.