Robots Ride To The Rescue In DARPA's Virtual Robotics Challenge

Let’s face it, our human bodies could use a hardware upgrade. Our flesh is easily torn by sharp objects, and we’re pretty vulnerable to stuff like fire and explosions. So when disasters like nuclear meltdowns or earthquakes affect our world, there’s not much we can do. 

With Human 2.0 nowhere in sight, our best chance of increasing our survival in disaster situations is to build robots that can become our first responders. 

Right now, DARPA’s Virtual Robotics Challenge is underway, a contest that could have groundbreaking implications for disaster preparedness around the entire world. It’s the first of three events that make up the DARPA Robotics Challenge.

Robots As Rescuers

The DARPA challenge is mobilizing university-affiliated teams (both with funding and without) to come up with ways to program robots to do the things that human first responders, like firefighters and rescuers, badly need them to do. 

This year, disaster responders came up with three key robotic priorities which became the three trials of the Virtual Robotics Challenge: driving a car, walking over rubble, and using a hose (for example, to pump cooling water into an overheated nuclear power plant).

While over 100 teams around the world signed up, only 26 made the cut by completing a preliminary challenge. Watch the video to see the Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF) explain and demonstrate the preliminary challenge: 

The Virtual Robotics Challenge and preliminary are completed entirely in OSRF’s Gazebo simulator, a virtual environment that works like the real world, even if it doesn’t look exactly like it. All contestants will be using Robot Operating System (ROS), a robotics language developed by Willow Garage and maintained by OSRF. 

Up to 6 winning teams will receive an ATLAS robot, pictured above, developed by Boston Dynamics. The winning teams will be able to use these robots at the DARPA Robotics Challenge trials in December, as they try to make their virtual simulations a reality. 

Live But Under Wraps

The contest began on Monday, June 17, but we’re not allowed to report on the details of the challenges or how various teams fare until June 27, when the winners are announced. That’s because the contest is trying to simulate a disaster situation by narrowing contestants' own knowledge about the scenario, in part by limiting real-time coverage to the general public. 

DARPA has a few restrictions for the teams designed to mimic the chaos of an actual disaster. In some cases, DARPA will vary the quality of communication between the team and the robot, since the team can’t count on everything working properly during an emergency. 

In the preliminary challenge, teams were able to view the simulation from all angles, the better to make informed decisions about the robot’s course of action. But during the Virtual Robotics Challenge they’re limited to just a robot’s first person view, as would be the case in an actual disaster. DARPA is recording the challenges from all angles for later, but releasing those videos early would give teams an unfair advantage. 

DARPA has released all the information that’s currently available to the public on its Robotics Challenge website. Other than that, we won’t know what really happened at the contest until next week.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated when the winners will be announced. That announcement is expected on June 27. 

Photo courtesy of DARPA