DARPA contest could bring robots to a fire near you

Thursday, October 25, 2012

NASA fans like to point out the many products originating in the space effort, from felt-tip pens to miniaturization in electronics and satellite television.

But perhaps even more breakthroughs can trace their origins back to military efforts, from jet engines to atomic power to the interstate highway system to the Internet.

The latest example came Wednesday when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced details of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, which will offer $2 million to teams competing to create hardware and software enabled to assist humans in emergency response when a disaster strikes.

The project was created in response to the "Fukushima 50," a group of 50 men who risked their lives to prevent a nuclear meltdown at Japan's Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant following the 2011 tsunami.

How much better, DARPA recognizes, to send robots, immune to radiation and other environmental threats, into such dangerous situations.

The robots will be required to drive a vehicle, under the supervision of a remote operator, open a door, climb a stairway and connect a cable or fire hose, as well as figure out how to use hand tools designed for humans.

Robots actually were brought in to work on the crippled Japanese reactors, but the plant operators who knew what had to be done had to spend several days training to use the robots.

"One of DARPA's goals for the Challenge is to catalyze robotics development across all fields so that we as a community end up with more capable, more affordable robots that are easier to operate," said Dr. Gill Pratt, the DRC's program manager.

In case you have doubts, previous DARPA contests have challenged teams to build driverless cars -- that project found so much success that Google is testing driverless cars in California and the government is considering legislation to regulate them.

But there's no reason DARPA technology should be confined to big cities. We predict a day will come when robots designed to operate in hazardous environments are as common as the Jaws of Life hydraulic rescue tools now deployed by local fire departments.

And, with the variety of hazards facing first responders in our rural area -- from farm chemicals to grass fires to industrial chemicals being transported by truck or rail -- that day can't come soon enough.

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