Military robots win search and rescue competition as they search for survivors in underground power plant after gas leak
- DARPA hosted a search and rescue competition for autonomous robots
- The winning team, from JPL programmed 12 autonomous robots to find warm mannequins standing in for human survivors, and a lost cell phone in the ruins
- The robots operated completely independently, creating a digital map of the environment as they explored and sending a video feed to a human operator
Scientists convened on an unfinished underground power plant in Elma, Washington to test a group of autonomous military robots in a simulated disaster scenario.
The scientists weren’t taking part in an experiment but a competition sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), as part of its efforts to develop a range of autonomous robots to fill a variety of military roles.
The winning team came from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a 60 person crew that oversaw a group of 12 robots they’d programmed through an initiative called Collaborative SubTerranean Autonomous Robots (CoSTAR).
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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency hosted a competition for autonomous search and rescue robots it hopes will eventually be of use in military operations
‘The goal is to develop software for our robots that lets them decide how to proceed as they face new surprises,’ JPL’s Ali Agha said.
‘These robots are highly autonomous and for the most part make decisions without human intervention.’
CoSTAR’s robots autonomously explored the underground plant, which had been designed to simulate an urban disaster environment with a carbon dioxide leak and warm air vent.
The robot group included Spot, the famous four-legged product of Boston Dynamics that was loosely modeled after a dog, as well as flying drones and a group of rolling robots in spherical metal frames.
The robots were tasked with tracking down 20 unique targets, including a warm mannequin simulating a disaster survivor, and a lost cell phone, which they located by tracing its Wi-Fi signal.
The team had one human overseer, who received a live video feed from the robots as well as a digital map they generated as they explored the plant, according to a post on the JPL blog.
The robots were programmed to drop wireless repeater devices to help them maintain contact with their human overseer as they delved further into the facility.
‘These courses are very, very challenging, and most of the difficulty lies in communicating with the robots after they’ve gone out of range,’ Agha said.
‘That’s critical for NASA: We want to send robots into caves on the Moon or Mars, where they have to explore on their own.’
While the robots operated independently, a human overseer was able to follow their progress through a live video feed and digital map the robots created as they explored the environment
Each team used a mix of different robots to help navigate all of the environmental challenges posed by the power plant, including stairs, cluttered furniture, and dangerous gas leaks
The robots navigated an underground power plant in search of human survivors, symbolized by warm mannequins, as well as key items like a lost cell phone, which they traced through its Wi-Fi signal
The robots were programmed to drop small wireless repeated devices to ensure they maintained contact with their human overseer as they delved deeper into the plant
The winning team came from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who will continue to compete in two additional rounds, one this August, and a final round in 2021, after which an overall winner will receive a $2million prize
The Elma competition was the second of four total rounds, the next of which take place in August, when the robots will be set loose in a natural cave environment.
The final round will take place in 2021 in a blended environment of tunnels, urban structures, and caves.
The winning team for the entire challenge will be awarded $2million.
WHAT IS BOSTON DYNAMICS’ SPOT MINI ROBO-DOG?
Boston Dynamics first showed off SpotMini, the most advanced robot dog ever created, in a video posted in November 2017.
The firm, best known for Atlas, its 5 foot 9 (1.7 metre) humanoid robot, has revealed a new ‘lightweight’ version of its robot Spot Mini.
The robotic canine was shown trotting around a yard, with the promise that more information from the notoriously secretive firm is ‘coming soon’.
‘SpotMini is a small four-legged robot that comfortably fits in an office or home’ the firm says on its website.
It weighs 25 kg (55 lb), or 30 kg (66 lb) when you include the robotic arm.
SpotMini is all-electric and can go for about 90 minutes on a charge, depending on what it is doing, the firm says, boasting ‘SpotMini is the quietest robot we have built.’
SpotMini was first unveiled in 2016, and a previous version of the mini version of spot with a strange extendable neck has been shown off helping around the house.
In the firm’s previous video, the robot is shown walking out of the firm’s HQ and into what appears to be a home.
There, it helps load a dishwasher and carries a can to the trash.
It also at one point encounters a dropped banana skin and falls dramatically – but uses its extendable neck to push itself back up.
‘SpotMini is one of the quietest robots we have ever built, the firm says, due to its electric motors.
‘It has a variety of sensors, including depth cameras, a solid state gyro (IMU) and proprioception sensors in the limbs.
‘These sensors help with navigation and mobile manipulation.
‘SpotMini performs some tasks autonomously, but often uses a human for high-level guidance.’