DARPA unveils program to develop autonomous robots

Four-year program aims for robots to perform complex tasks with minial human intervention.

Robots have transformed the way the U.S. military fights wars. Ground-based bomb disposal robots in particular have saved many lives by disarming improvised explosive devices. But these machines require a human operator to carry out their tasks, which can be made more difficult due to communications bandwidth issues to remote control units and limited fields of view.

To make robots more flexible in battlefield situations, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has launched the Autonomous Robotic Manipulation program. ARM seeks to provide future robots with enough autonomy so they will require only occasional high-level supervision by human operators. According to DARPA, this will simplify human control, potentially improving how tasks such as bomb disposal are carried out and allowing individual robots to carry out a variety of missions.

The four-year program’s goal is to develop software and hardware that allows robots to autonomously grasp, manipulate and perform complex tasks with minimal human direction. DARPA has tapped a number of research teams to tackle various parts of the program. These areas of work include developing designs for a multifinger hand emphasizing robust design and low cost and software that allows robots to perform several tasks.


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Besides the hardware and software efforts, DARPA is also seeking public outreach. The agency will make one of the program’s robots available for public use, allowing anyone to write software, test it and load it onto the robot. The contributors can then watch via the Internet as the DARPA robot operates their software. DARPA officials said that teams involved will be able to collaborate with teams around the world.

In related news, the U.S. Army has awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin to manufacture robot cargo helicopters to supply troops in Afghanistan. Under the Autonomous Technologies for Unmanned Air Systems contract, the company will supply a robotic helicopter based on the manned Kaman K-MAX.

According to the Register, in trials held earlier this year, ATUAS K-MAX demonstrated that it can transport 3,000 pounds of cargo slung under its belly across 150 nautical miles in two flights within six hours. This achievement was carried out without any input from ground operators other than specifying the destination and route.

The robot cargo copter is expected to provide the same performance and deliver supplies to a point within 30 feet of the target coordinates, even in weather that would ground a manned helicopter. Aviation Week reported that the ATUAS may be deployed in the field sometime after 2011.

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