Next month, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—the sci-fi research wing of the U.S. military—will pit companies and universities against each other in a competition to design the best disaster-relief robot, and odds are the winner will look somewhat like you and me.
Robots have proven tremendously useful in defusing bombs in Afghanistan and detecting radiation at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant. But those bots are basically small remote-controlled tanks with a mechanical arm, and they can get hung up on narrow stairwells and are totally stumped by ladders. The robots in DARPA’s obstacle course will not only have to climb ladders; they’ll have to drive vehicles and fix leaking pipes. That means they’ll probably be humanoid, even though DARPA doesn’t require them to be.
“A lot of the places you do disaster recovery are designed for people,” says Marc Raibert, the president of Boston Dynamics, which is providing robots for the software component of DARPA’s competition. “If you’re a humanoid, access can be increased and you can use available tools.” When Fukushima melted down, there were fire trucks on site but radiation was too high for people to use them. In the future DARPA hopes for, a humanoid robot could have driven the trucks, entered the power plant, and carried out repairs.
That future is a long way off. Simple motions like squatting are almost impossible for something with metal parts and rigid skin, says Raibert. While Dynamic’s headless humanoid can climb stairs, it does so with all the flailing grace of a windup toy.
Still, recent progress is impressive enough that the military has begun to bet on legged bots. The Office of Naval Research is working with Virginia Tech on a humanoid firefighting robot, and earlier this month, Dynamics showed off two of its latest projects: Cheetah, a four-legged robot capable of running 28 miles per hour, and the Legged Squad Support System, a hulking headless robotic “pack mule” funded by DARPA and the Marine Corps to help carry gear over harsh terrain.
“Half the land on earth is too rough, sandy, or rocky for wheeled things,” says Raibert. “Humans and animals can go to those places. They’re the only examples of successful systems that do what we’re trying to do.”
None of the walking bots is meant to fight. They’re designed to put out fires, clean up industrial accidents, and schlep gear for overburdened Marines. But they are all funded by the military, and as we saw with drones, the step from combat support to combat itself is a short one. “I’m not naive,” says Dennis Hong, founding director of Virginia Tech’s robotics lab. “Robots for me are tools to help society. I don’t weaponize them. But once a technology leaves our lab, there’s no way to control how people can use it.” In that regard, DARPA’s boast that the Cheetah bot can outrun the world’s fastest human isn’t particularly comforting.