We know from the Terminator movies that not all robots out there are bent on annihilating the human race. In fact, engineers and scientists all over the world are right now working on a breed of robots that will save lives. The field is called Disaster Robotics and the players are some of the most high-tech machines that have ever been created—infinitely more complex and powerful than what we see on screen. All for a good reason. These rescue robots will take part in disaster rescue and salvage operations and will operate in environments deemed too dangerous for humans to venture into. But first they have to prove their worth to us.
Enter the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals 2015. It took place in Pomona, California, and saw more than 20 competitors from different countries compete for $2 million prize money and glory in the robotics world. Their task was to complete eight tasks in a simulated disaster environment in less than 60 minutes. The tasks included walking over loose soil and debris, driving vehicles (they cannot hit anything), drilling through walls, climbing stairs, opening doors, closing valves, and moving piles of rubble. And oh, getting out of the car was also a task that the robots were tested on!
Easy peasy, do you think? No, not for a robot.
Being a robot in a human world is not easy. Having to perform tasks that are natural to us is challenging for a robot. Do you know, robotics engineers spend years working on their creations just to make them stand upright without being supported and get up from a seated position without toppling over and crashing? Getting up after a fall and balancing itself once again on its two legs is again another challenge for a robot. It is no wonder so many robots fell during the DARPA Robotics Challenge trials and finals while getting out of the car, opening doors, and operating the drill. Clearly, it is time we human beings recognized the marvels of creation that we are and stopped fighting each other!
The DARPA Robotics Challenge 2015 crown was taken by Team KAIST from South Korea with their transformer-like creation, the DRC-HUBO. It has been designed to walk on its two legs and if need be, switch to being a wheeled machine. The secret is in the wheels fitted to its knees. The DRC-HUBO was faster than its competitors—it completed the obstacle race, flawlessly, in 44 minutes and 28 seconds. And it stood on its feet throughout the race!
The DRC-HUBO is the culmination of years of painstaking research and hard work. The winning design consists of motorized wheels in the knees and casters on the feet to help it move faster without falling over, optical sensors on the shins when the robot has to roll on the ground, long arms to reach higher and farther, an upper body that can swing 180 degrees, and powerful motors to keep it going strong for long.
Robots are being used in search-and-rescue missions since the 9/11 World Trade Center incident. Recently, these machines were called into action at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant after a powerful earthquake and tsunamis damaged the complex and caused leaks.
So it is robots-to-the-rescue time. We will keep an eye on the developments in this space with interest.