The United States Department of Defense has gained a new interest in robotics just after Fukushima 2011 and view humanoid robots as vital for disaster response. DARPA which is part of DOD has always worked on new technologies for the military but Fukushima has opened the door to other new technology strategies besides weaponry. The robots had to be compatible with human environments, compatible with human tools and compatible with human operators without special training. The easiest form to accomplish that is the human form, thus the humanoid robot.
Specialized robots have been around for many years, but the DARPA Challenge was setup to develop humanoid robots to do generalize human activity based on our five senses with dexterity and yes, artificial intelligence (more on AI in future article). Atlas, by Boston Dynamics, is a generalized humanoid robot designed to handle those 8 requirements of the contest for a search and rescue functional machine. I called it a machine just as a reminder that even though it looks more like a human and acts more like a human, it is just a machine and will not be taking over your job any time soon, even though some of us might actually like that. Unlike Asimo (last weeks article), which is a service humanoid robot, Atlas is an industrial strength tough humanoid robot that even Mike Rowe would be envious of. Altas is designed to do the dirty jobs.
Unfortunately Japan has a law that prevents government funded institutions from building robots that could have a military purpose, which is possible with any robot design. Three engineers from the University of Tokyo decided they wanted to help develop a robot to assist with their country’s nuclear problem at Fukushima and started they own company, which is a way to get around the restrictive laws. With the help of many UT graduates, this new company built a stronger humanoid robot within 6 months and joined the robotics open source consortium to share their knowledge.
KAIST Inc. a South Korea company has taken the technology of Asimo and advanced it with an open source ideology also. Hugo is the name of the South Korean humanoid robot that won the DARPA Challenge and completed all 8 tasks, flawlessly. Hugo has two software slots for its brain; a mechanical operating system slot (how to do model) and an open source application software slot (what to do models). Most people call these apps.
While search and rescue humanoid robots are making accelerated gains in technology for use here on earth we can’t forget some of those robots that are actually out of this world. The Google Lunar XPRIZE is a contest to challenge the space and robotics industries and entrepreneurs to come up with mobile solutions to get around on the moon. The challenge is to launch a robotic explorer to the moon, successfully land it and make the robot explore at least 500 meters on the surface, while beaming high-definition videos and photos back to the earth.
An extension of the Google Lunar XPRIZE Challenge is the MOONBOTS Challenge which is an interactive competition that emulates the real Google Lunar XPRIZE to increase school students’ interests in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). The Challenge is geared for a youth audience between the ages 8 to 17 years and is open to children all over the world. These kids will be our future in space travel and robotics. I have previously mentioned several ‘prize’ competitions to advance private R&D on several different platforms and this seems to be a great motivator and offers an alternative to our National Labs.