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Those disappointed by the glacial pace of the competitors in last year’s DARPA Robotics Challenge trials will appreciate the newly updated ATLAS robot DARPA debuted today. ATLAS is the generic robot body used by teams that concentrate on software, and therefore has a very strong presence in the competition.
The most obvious change in the ATLAS robot, which was built and now updated by Google-owned Boston Dynamics (which pulled its own robot from the competition), is it now has a shiny white chest plate that makes it look like a cross between a Stormtrooper and the Terminator. But the biggest upgrade is its power now comes from batteries instead of a tethered cable, which will allow it to move more freely in the competition.
According to DARPA:
Atlas will now carry an onboard 3.7-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, with the potential for one hour of “mixed mission” operation that includes walking, standing, use of tools, and other movements. This will drive a new variable-pressure pump that allows for more efficient operation.
Free movement is important because the DARPA Robotics Challenge is actually a demonstration of the technology that will someday evolve into search and rescue robots. When a robot enters a burning building, it can’t be moving at two miles per hour trailing a power cord. It needs to be capable of quick autonomous action even in the face of rubble and the collapse of communication networks.
Overall, only ATLAS’s lower legs and feet remain the same. It has more flexibility in its wrists and can now see its hands at work. It’s also stronger and quieter.
The Robotics Challenge finals will take place in June in Pomona, Calif., where the winning teams will split $3.5 million in prize money. At least 20 teams are expected to compete, and the competitors will be different than last year’s mix.
Forgoing the power cord brings ATLAS in line with changes DARPA is requiring for the competition’s finals. The DARPA announcement states:
- Robots will have to operate completely without wires — they may not be connected to power cords, fall arrestors, or wired communications tethers. Teams will have to communicate with their robots over a secure wireless network.
- Teams are not allowed any physical intervention with their robot after it begins a run. If a robot falls or gets stuck, it will have to recover and continue with the tasks without any hands-on assistance. If a robot cannot sustain and recover from a fall, its run will end.
- DARPA will intentionally degrade communications between the robots and human operators working at a distance. The idea is to replicate the conditions these robots would face going into a disaster zone. Spotty communication will force the robots to make some progress on their own during communications blackouts.
Hopefully the change in rules will push teams to be more daring, which will lead to both greater successes and failures.