It looks like yesterday when I had just started my PhD and I was looking with awe at the first DARPA Grand Challenge (2005). Seeing cars race in the desert with no driver, knowing that the world was being changed before my eyes. It wasn’t the development of particularly new technologies, but showing that research was out of the labs and into the field. It made history. It prompted me to focus more on real robotics. And now it is happening again.
In the past couple of years Boston Dynamics has shown the world that robots don’t necessarily need wheels, but they can walk on impervious terrain using four legs, or even two. But it is not only about making them stand. These robots have to do stuff using common tools, like driving a truck, closing a valve or using a drill. They won’t have the great stability four wheels provide, or the capability of carrying a heavy payload packed with sensors and computational power. The lack of precision in motion will have to be compensated with sensing. And a novel inclusion of a human operator in the loop.
Meet Atlas, the new guy that is going to change the way robots will work alongside humans.
It won’t be alone, as seven teams are building their own hardware to compete for the first prize.
So what is this challenge about? I have been lucky enough to get a virtual seat at the kickoff meeting. The details are not final, but the main idea is that teams from all around the world will compete to create a robot that can be deployed in a disaster-stricken area, possibly inspired by Fukushima, to perform tasks too dangerous for humans. It is not about being a camera-on-wheels system, but a robot that can perform actions in a semi-supervised way. If this works the technology will change the way manufacturing is done (like Baxter, but in some other way), and it will create a new huge boost for robotics and its deployment in the real world.
There has been a lot of talking about the challenge that I am not going to repeat here. Here is what I think will be the main obstacles towards solving the challenge:
- Perception: Identifying items that are either usable by the robot (tools, valves, trucks) or that are an obstacle towards a goal (rubble blocking a door).
- Locomotion: Moving on an uneven terrain. Entering or exiting a vehicle. Climbing a ladder.
- Communication: Performing actions with little or no supervision from the operator, given the communications constraints a disaster environment imposes.
- Robustness: It’s not about having a perfect algorithm to solve a problem, but to be able to adapt and cope with environments and situations that in no way could have been foreseen and accounted for when programming the robot.
- Integration: A lot of components and ideas will merge and fight to control the robot, and they will call for a right arbitration for the overall system to be functional.
Many more obstacles will need to be overcome. People will work days and nights to solve waves of problems. There will be last-minute rushes and hacky solutions. The end result might look like the one folks at Drexel University have nicely illustrated in the following video.
Good luck to all the teams, PIs, scientists and engineers competing to make the world a better place!