Darpa's first Grand Challenge for autonomous vehicles, over 150 mi. of road in the Mojave Desert in 2004, failed to produce a winner. But a year later, five vehicles completed the 131-mi. course. And in 2007's Urban Challenge, six unmanned vehicles successfully navigated city streets, negotiating intersections and avoiding other vehicles. These led directly to Google's driverless car program, headed by the leader of the Stanford University team that built Stanley, winner of the 2005 Grand Challenge.
Darpa's Robotics Challenge (DRC) is more ambitious. “What we've seen in disaster after disaster is there are often clear limitations to what humans can accomplish in the early stages,” says program manager Gill Pratt. “Darpa believes robots can work where and when humans cannot.”
That no two disasters are exactly alike underpins the DRC. “It is adaptability and compatibility with humans we are after, in three ways,” he says: compatibility with environments engineered for humans, even when degraded; ability to use tools designed for humans, from screwdrivers to vehicles; and ability to be supervised by people with little or no robotics training.
“Success in the DRC would mark a leap forward for the field of robotics,” says Pratt. While the challenge is “raising the bar very high,” he believes the foundations for success are in place.
Industry can produce task-specific robots, but what the DRC is trying to create, says Pratt, is the ability to take that technology out of the laboratory into the real world. “[Secondly] we want the capabilities to do individual tasks to be joined together . . . so a robot can deal with a situation that does not unfold exactly as planned.”
Third is to develop control interfaces that allow a robot to become an extension of what the human is trying to do, through supervised autonomy. “What we are trying to do is move the field of supervising robots from tele-operation, where we give step-by-step commands, to task-level autonomy, where we give a command like 'Open the door' or 'Climb the stairs,' and have the robot complete those tasks by itself.”
With live competitions planned for December this year and again in 2014, the Robotics Challenge allows teams to compete with their own robots, or with software only, running on Darpa-supplied robots. “Building robots that can actually physically complete all of the DRC tasks is very difficult,” says Pratt. “We need expertise from both hardware and software domains, and didn't want to preclude participation by any team based on limited resources or expertise in robotic hardware.”
Why a challenge? “We approached the DRC with the understanding that current robots are limited in their application to defense missions and civilian tasks in similar ways,” he says. Existing robots tend to have specialized and limited functionality, and are expensive, complicated to operate, with limited autonomy, mobility, dexterity, strength and endurance.
Overcoming those limitations requires substantial investment. “The DRC provides funding, incentives and a rallying point for the robotics community,” while also looking outside traditional research communities, Pratt says. “If we're successful with the DRC in developing these foundational properties, we will expand the horizon for what is possible with robots in the defense, commercial and civilian sectors.”