Come with Me If You Want to Live!

Article excerpt

Byline: Josh Dzieza

The next generation of rescue robots may look human.

Next month, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency--the sci-fi research wing of the U.S. military--will pit companies and universities against each other in a competition to design the best disaster-relief robot, and odds are the winner will look somewhat like you and me.

Robots have proven tremendously useful in defusing bombs in Afghanistan and detecting radiation at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant. But those bots are basically small remote-controlled tanks with a mechanical arm, and they can get hung up on narrow stairwells and are totally stumped by ladders. The robots in DARPA's obstacle course will not only have to climb ladders; they'll have to drive vehicles and fix leaking pipes. That means they'll probably be humanoid, even though DARPA doesn't require them to be.

"A lot of the places you do disaster recovery are designed for people," says Marc Raibert, the president of Boston Dynamics, which is providing robots for the software component of DARPA's competition. "If you're a humanoid, access can be increased and you can use available tools." When Fukushima melted down, there were fire trucks on site but radiation was too high for people to use them. In the future DARPA hopes for, a humanoid robot could have driven the trucks, entered the power plant, and carried out repairs.

That future is a long way off. Simple motions like squatting are almost impossible for something with metal parts and rigid skin, says Raibert. …