Humanoid-robot soldiers may be getting closer to reality with DARPA's next Grand Challenge, which apparently will involve getting a robot to pull off some pretty impressive handyman skills.
According to robotics Web site Hizook, DARPA's Gill Pratt recently outlined the challenge, which calls for humanoids to be used in industrial disasters and rough terrain.
The ultimate object is to build a robot that can work in a human environment and use human tools. The industrial setting is no surprise in the aftermath of Japan's Fukushima nuclear crisis, in which various robots from the U.S. have lent a helping hand (or manipulator).
DARPA will apparently fund 6 hardware and 12 software teams for the challenge. The object is to get a robot, preferably a bipedal one, to drive a utility vehicle such as a tractor to a locked room; dismount and unlock a door with a key; enter the room; and cross a debris-strewn floor.
It will then have to climb a ladder, locate a leaking pipe, shut a valve, and replace a faulty pump.
It has to do all that semi-autonomously, with operators only supervising its actions. Now that's a challenge.
It may be that no robot will be able to complete all the tasks, so DARPA will hold the challenge again a year later.
The plan follows news that DARPA wants to create an "Avatar" program in which soldiers would partner with "semi-autonomous bipedal machines" to carry out duties such as "room clearing, sentry control, [and] combat casualty recovery."
Boston Dynamics, which develops robots for DARPA, has been working on Petman, a full-size anthropomorphic machine that is apparently designed to test chemical weapons suits.
Unlike the U.S., for decades Japan has worked on humanoid robots such as Honda's Asimo, but none has found a useful application so far. Then again, Japan's Self-Defense Forces aren't terribly keen on robots. At least Asimo can say "I love you."