01/07/2014 - 11:50

Robot to the rescue

Gill A. Pratt

Gill A. Pratt is a DARPA program manager on loan from Franklin W. Olin College, where he is a professor of electrical...

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The 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant highlighted the promise and shortcomings of robots. Had robots been able to quickly enter the plant and vent accumulated hydrogen, a meltdown could have been averted, but training requirements and technology limitations delayed their deployment. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched the DARPA Robotics Challenge to catalyze development of semi-autonomous robots capable of operating in dangerous, degraded environments so society is prepared to respond to future disasters. The challenge brings together robotics systems and software experts from around the world in a series of competitions to overcome technological obstacles related to robotic mobility, manipulation, perception, human–robot interface, and actuation. Over a period of less than three years, DARPA expects the field of robotics to undergo a historic transformation that could drive innovation in robots for defense, health care, agriculture, and industry. DARPA outlines its objectives for the challenge, addresses the ethics and present realities of robotics, and charts the development path to capable, cost-effective systems.