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The Pentagon's brash boffinry bureau DARPA is offering millions in research funding to any robot-builders who can come up with a machine capable of dealing with disasters like nuclear meltdowns and tsunamis.

Robots breaking down walls and fixing leaky pipes

Robots breaking down walls and fixing leaky pipes. Credit: DARPA

The DARPA Robotics Challenge wants tech firms to build a disaster response robot that can operate in "human-engineered" spaces, like buildings and cities, and it is ready to fork out up to $34m (£21.4) to get a good one.

DARPA explained in the competition prospectus:

The Department of Defense strategic plan calls for the Joint Force to conduct humanitarian, disaster relief, and other operations. The strategic plan identifies needs for extending aid to victims of natural or manmade disasters and for conducting evacuation operations.

The DARPA Robotics Challenge programme will help directly meet these needs by developing robotic technology for disaster response operations. This technology will improve the performance of robots that operate in the rough terrain and austere conditions characteristic of disasters, and use vehicles and tools commonly available in populated areas.

The defence agency is particularly targeting the sort of catastrophes where it's difficult for people to help safely, such as the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

Some of the funds will be given on the strength of proposals from prospective robot-makers who don't have the readies to get started and the rest will be handed out over the various stages of the competition, leaving the winning team with a prize pot of $2m.

The robots will have to complete a number of tasks to prove they're capable of dealing with disaster, firstly in a virtual simulation and then in two different physical phases.

The misfortune-mending machines will have to complete a number of fine motor skills that show they can interact with human tools, transport and buildings that they might meet in a disaster zone.

They will need to drive an ordinary utility vehicle, walk/roll/travel across some rubble, move debris out of a doorway, open the door and go into an industrial building, climb a ladder and cross a catwalk, break through a concrete panel with some sort of tool, find a leaking pipe and close the valve, and replace a cooling pump.

The assisting androids don't need to be humanoid in shape, but they do need a certain amount of autonomy, because DARPA will be messing with communication between the robots and their operators as part of the challenge, since emergency situations don't usually come with good WiFi.

The government boffins also want the robots to be pretty easy for non-robotic-experts to use, since their likely operators would be emergency services rather than tech guys:

The program aims to advance the key robotic technologies of supervised autonomy, mounted mobility, dismounted mobility, dexterity, strength, and platform endurance. Supervised autonomy will be developed to allow robot control by non-expert operators, to lower operator workload, and to allow effective operation despite low fidelity (low bandwidth, high latency, intermittent) communications.

Prospective automaton-assemblers need to submit proposals by the end of May and the challenge will take place over the 28 months after that.

You can read the full competition prospectus here (774KB PDF). ®

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