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Robots as First Responders in Disaster Zones?

SAN FRANCISCO -- In the event of another disaster at a nuclear power plant, the first responders may not be humans but robots. They may not even look humanoid.

The U.S. Department of Defense's research and development agency announced a competition Tuesday for the design of specialized robots that could work in disaster zones while operating common tools and vehicles. While such tasks may well inspire humanoid designs, roboticists say they may also lead to the robotic equivalent of a minotaur - a hybrid creature that might have multiple arms and not just legs, but treads.

Rumors of the competition have already set professional and amateur robot builders buzzing with speculation about possible designs and alliances. Aaron Edsinger, co-founder of Meka Robotics in San Francisco, said he was speaking with fellow roboticists around the United States and was considering a wide array of possible inspirations.

''Analogs to animals such as spiders, monkeys, bears, kangaroos and goats are useful inspiration when considering parts of the challenge,'' he said.

The research organization, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, lists eight tasks the robot will most likely need to perform: driving a vehicle to a simulated disaster site, moving across rubble, removing rubble from an entryway, climbing a ladder, using a tool to break through a concrete wall, finding and then closing a valve on a leaking pipe, and replacing a component like a cooling pump.

Mr. Edsinger said the challenge would not be in completing any one of the tasks but rather in integrating them into a single mission. ''I feel we already have systems that can achieve each individual task in the challenge,'' he said.

The inspiration for the competition came from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in March 2011, said Gill Pratt, a program manager in Darpa's defense sciences office. ''During the first 24 hours, there were things that should have been done, but were not done because it was too dangerous for people to do them,'' he said.

The agency said it would award the winner a $2 million prize. It is calling the program a ''robotics challenge,'' which is distinguished from a series of ''grand challenge'' events it held in 2004, 2005 and 2007, with $1 million and $2 million prizes for a contest to design autonomous vehicles to drive in desert and urban settings.

Corporate and university teams will compete to enter the robots in contests in 2013 and 2015. The robots will not need to be completely autonomous, but rather will be ''supervised'' by human operators, much as ground-based pilots now fly military drones.

The competition underscores the rapid progress being made in autonomous systems in military, manufacturing and home applications. Robotics researchers have said that the advances can in part be attributed to the falling cost of all kinds of sensors, as well as advances in perception technologies that make it possible for robots to move in varied environments.

A number of ambitious humanoid robots have already been designed by industrial researchers. The Honda Asimo was introduced in 2000 and by 2005 could operate for a full hour on batteries. Last year it demonstrated the ability to run nine kilometers, or more than five miles, per hour.

Darpa officials said they were hoping for international participation in the robot competition. Indeed, the challenge echoes a proposal made last November by Hirochika Inoue, the father of humanoid robot development in Japan.

Despite Japan's significant investment in robotics, Mr. Inoue noted that the country did not have any robots capable of completely replacing humans at the time of the Fukushima disaster. ''Many people wanted to do it by robots,'' he said in an e-mail, ''but we had not prepared.''

In the United States, both General Motors and Boston Dynamics, a small research laboratory financed by the U.S. military, have developed humanoid robots. G.M.'s Robonaut 2 is now on the International Space Station, where it is being tested as an astronaut's assistant. Boston Dynamics, which has attracted attention for a transport robot called BigDog and more recently for a four-legged running robot called Cheetah, has a humanoid robot called Atlas.

Darpa said it would distribute a test hardware platform with legs, torso, arms and head to assist some of the teams in their development efforts. Several robot researchers said a version of the Boston Dynamics Atlas was a likely candidate for this role, but Mr. Pratt said his agency would also provide a software simulator to allow the widest possible participation in the challenge.

''We're opening the aperture as wide as we can,'' he said.


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