DARPA, the all encompasing technological agency of the United States has come out with another robot, called Valkyrie. DARPA is the sponsor for the competition, with their own entry Valkyrie among 17 other competitor entries. The event is scheduled for December 20, and 21 in Florida.
The robots, and their capabilities will be tested on their ability to provide assistance in future natural and man-made disasters. The entry by NASA’s Johnson Space Center is Valkyrie, and honestly strikes quite a presence once you look at it. First of all the robot is 6’2″, which is a perfect height for assistance in natural disasters because the content of the body will be able to withstand the weather, due to more surface area and independent limb movement. The total weight of Valkyrie is 262 pounds, which also allows for complete movement in tough weather. It has seven degree of freedom arms, with actuated wrists, and six degree of freedom hands. This means that the range of motion for this particular robot is some of the largest range of motion every built for a single autonomous robot.
The goal of the Robot Challenge is to present robots “That demonstrates critical improvements in what robots can do to help out in disaster relief efforts, when human intervention is unsafe and time is of the essence, such as nuclear power plant disasters, oil spills, and wildfires. That means the robots who compete need to be agile and responsive to move through disaster zones and do needed rescue tasks. In the words of DARPA, the Challenge itself was designed “to catalyze the robotics community to help mitigate the effects of future disasters”
Valkyrie took nine months to build, working 22 hours a day! A pretty awesome feat considering the amount of technology, and converging technologies involved to create a robot of this magnitude. However, we still have considerable room to grow in terms of engineering and nanotechnology that is specific to building robots for these specific purposes. The robots in the challenge will need to prove the extent of their capabilities such as walking over uneven terrain, climbing a ladder and using tools.
The design team took several important functions of the body and made sure that parts were easily replaceable. For example, the battery in the backpack of the robot can be replaced very easily, within two minutes. They also designed the robot’s limbs as removable parts that can be swapped out for new parts in minutes. What’s more, they designed the left and right arms to be identical in construction, so that right and left arms can be swapped if needed.
For the competition itself, the robots will be graded on how well they can complete designated tasks the kinds that first responders would face in actual natural and man-made disasters. Perhaps Valkyrie will be the robot in the challenge with the highest amount of embedded intelligence. Not surprisingly, Valkyrie will enter the competition with lots of onboard computing. Sensors are generously spread all over Valkyrie. There are cameras and LIDAR (a remote sensing method, LIDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging) in the head, cameras in the abdomen, forearms, knees and feet. Valkyrie’s clothing consists of panels of fabric-wrapped foam armor which can protect Valkyrie from falls and impacts. The clothing was built on site by a dedicated design staff.
Only a few years from now these robots will be working with first responder teams in response to disasters while also being sent to Mars first to help setup the initial infrastrucuture for colonization, while then working with humans collaboratively when humans arrive a few years later. Each year, the price of building robots comes down, thus why there are more and more robot competitions, and particularly more competitions for the younger generation. We must build robots to replace some human work, and also build specific robots to supplement and lead our physical capabilities, such as this article describes. As humans we will always lead ourselves to danger in some way. Having robots by our side and integrated robotic technologies integrated into our bodies, will allow us to have less death and destruction from a human loss standpoint, and will allow more of us to live through disasters, both natural and man-made. As long as we continue to fund the converging technologies of biotechnology, cognitive science, nanotechnology, and engineering.
Robots will help us live through disaster, now and in the near-future.