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  • DARPA Asks: Why Can't a Robot Be More Like a Man?
    Posted by John M. Doyle 10:36 PM on Aug 24, 2010

    The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking for ideas on ways to develop highly autonomous robots that can perform dangerous and complicated tasks like manning a vehicle checkpoint to firing a mortar with limited human control.

    blog post photo

    (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Gary A. Witte)

    The project, known as the Autonomous Robotics Manipulation (ARM) program, seeks software and hardware that will improve the ability of robots' hands to grasp and manipulate objects and perform complicated tasks.

    “This is a very nascent field. It really hasn't reached its stride,” Robert Mandelbaum, the program's manager told a briefing at the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in Denver.

    He envisions robots that will be able to act independently in a variety of tasks including underwater counter-mine operations, search and rescue, casualty care and bomb detection and disposal.

    Robots can lift heavy objects and perform repetitive tasks in factories – even sing and dance – but there isn't a lot they can do with their hands, Mandelbaum says. They have limited flexibility, especially when it comes to handling irregularly shaped objects like a backpack or an MRE (meals ready to eat) sack. So DARPA is looking for software that can make robots more resilient and adaptive, and hardware that can make low cost robotic hands that are more flexible, he says. The hands on DARPA's testbed robot cost $75,000, Mandelbaum notes.

    The idea is to reduce operator workload, bandwidth, hardware complexity and training time for robotic tasks, he adds.

    DARPA has about $50 million in funding for the 48-month project. The Pentagon's think-outside-the-box research unit already has a $300,000 robot to be used as a common platform on which  researchers can test their software.

    In June, DARPA selected six teams to research improving robots' hand-coordination: the University of Southern California, HRL Laboratories, NASA-Joint Propulsion Lab, iRobot, Carnegie Mellon University and SRI International.

    They're tasked with improving robots' grasping and manipulation abilities in three phases starting with simple tool operation and ranging to more complex ones like erecting a tent and loading a weapon.

    DARPA is also seeking input from the public: academics, students or hobbyists. Details about the project – including a name the robot contest – can be seen at

    Tags: unmanned, ar99, robot, DARPA

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