World-Class DARPA Robot Successfully Lurches Through Obstacle Course Like a Drunken Sailor

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 25 2012 10:40 AM

World-Class DARPA Robot Successfully Lurches Through Obstacle Course Like a Drunken Sailor

DARPA Pet-Proto robot
DARPA's Pet-Proto robot is designed to operate in irregular human environments, which is second-nature to us but a tall task for machines.

Screenshot / YouTube

Robots have long been able to do things humans can't. On the other hand, they have a really, really hard time doing things humans can do in their sleep—like walk around a room that has tables, chairs, and other objects strewn about.

DARPA, the U.S. military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, wants to help change that. Its latest grand challenge invites robot-makers to build a bot that can complete human tasks like climbing a ladder, driving a truck, operating handheld tools, and clambering over rubble in a disaster zone. The goal, IEEE Spectrum explains, is to develop robots that could someday aid in real-life disaster response, from fighting fires to fixing failed nuclear reactors.

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On Wednedsay, DARPA laid the gauntlet by releasing a video of a robot prototype called Pet-Proto completing an obstacle course of the sort that would challenge an able-bodied human. It won't get many style points for the performance, which calls to mind something from The Legend of Drunken Master, but it gets the job done. The Pet-Proto won't actually be competing in the grand challenge—it's intended as a predecessor to an even more adroit bot that robot-maker Boston Dynamics is working on, called Atlas. Wired's Danger Room blog has more about the competition, while Spectrum offers a look at some of the other robots expected to compete.

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

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

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