ROBOTS to the Rescue: DARPAs Robotics Challenge Inspires New Disaster-Relief Technology

By Rosen, Meghan | Science News, December 13, 2014 | Go to article overview

ROBOTS to the Rescue: DARPAs Robotics Challenge Inspires New Disaster-Relief Technology


Rosen, Meghan, Science News


Dennis Hong first spied Japan's ruined nuclear power plant from a bus wrapped in plastic.

A hefty layer of protection guarded the seats, floors and handles from radioactive dust. Hong wore a face mask and gloves to limit his own exposure. Like the other passengers, he had dressed in old clothes that he was willing to toss after the trip.

More than three years earlier, after an earthquake and tsunamis battered Japan's eastern coast, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station blew, blasting radiation into the sea and sky. Today, villages outside the plant still lie as barren as ghost towns. Soccer balls and notebooks rest untouched in abandoned schools; hushed houses sit deserted. Along the coast, smashed buildings, flipped cars and train tracks twisted like taffy stand as reminders of the catastrophe.

"It's like a disaster site frozen in time," Hong says. "It's surreal."

Workers toiled day and night to save the plant, but they had to get out as radiation levels rose. Even in disaster areas not tainted with radiation, picking through the shambles of destroyed buildings is treacherous: People need to dodge shards of glass and metal and duck clouds of smoke and dust.

Ideally, robots could take over for human crews. But seemingly simple tasks, such as walking, communicating and staying powered up, still pose big challenges for machines.

Hong, a UCLA roboticist, is one of several engineers racing to make robots that can come to the rescue in disasters. He and others from academia, industry, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab and the Department of Defense research agency known as DARPA traveled to Fukushima this spring to see what they were up against. "The take-home message was, 'Wow, it's damn difficult,' " Hong says.

Engineers have built impressive-looking humanlike bots that can play trumpet and even compete against each other in slow-moving soccer games. But machines that can actually do the work of humans in disaster zones--climbing over rubble, digging through debris for survivors, opening doors and valves--don't exist.

So DARPA kicked off a contest to create robots that someday could do the job. In 2012, the agency announced the DARPA Robotics Challenge, a competition designed to push disaster robotics technology miles past where it is today. A year ago, 17 robotic contenders, including Hong's man-shaped machine, THOR-OP, tackled a rugged obstacle course to try to gain a spot in the finals, to be held in June 2015.

Gill Pratt, a DARPA program manager, knows that researchers might take years to develop robots that could have saved the power plant. But he thinks the competition--with its motley crew of robotics engineers and their rowdy fans--is a good place to start.

On the scene

In the last decade or so, disaster-response robots haven't changed much. When the World Trade Center collapsed in 2001, engineers deployed a handful of lightweight bots to burrow through the rubble.

"These guys went into spaces where the first responders couldn't go," remembers Robin Murphy, a field roboticist at Texas A&M University in College Station. Because 110 floors of concrete and steel crumpled down into dense stacks of dust and debris, she says, ground-penetrating radar couldn't see through the rubble, and search-and-rescue dogs had trouble sniffing out survivors.

The robots, roughly shoebox-sized tanks, offered a new way for rescue teams to take a look. Murphy considers the roving machines a success: A few tunneled deep within the wreckage and withstood extreme heat to find 10 sets of human remains. But the robots didn't locate any survivors, and they ran into a slew of technical snags.

One robot slipped its tread and had to be pulled from the rubble and repaired. Another got wedged in a gap, stalled until rescuers could tug it out by its safety tether. A third robot lost communication, broke its tether, and was never seen again. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

ROBOTS to the Rescue: DARPAs Robotics Challenge Inspires New Disaster-Relief Technology
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.