of the USSR’s Sputnik spacecraft and the beginning of the
space race. It was in February 1958 that DARPA — then
known as “ARPA” (the “d” was not added to the name until
’ 72) — was formed as a reaction to that Russian milestone.
I also learned that DARPA seeks: 1. “An investment in
developing cyber security systems to enhance and ensure
that our national security is not compromised;” 2. A
Biological Technology office that aims to “outpace the
spread of infectious disease;” and 3. DARPA is “working to
achieve new capabilities by applying deep mathematics;
inventing new chemistries, processes, and materials; and
harnessing quantum physics.” Wow! Quantum physics!
The Autonomous Robotic Manipulation (ARM)
program has the goal of creating autonomous robotic arms
with hands complete with nimble fingers that can operate
with the dexterity of a human’s.
The Legged Squad Support System (LS3) program
has the goal of developing semi-autonomous four-legged
pack-animal-type robots to be utilized on the battlefield by
both Marines and soldiers. Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog robot
was one such bot.
The Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3)
program is pretty much what its name implies. Its goal is to
“... create and demonstrate significant scientific and
engineering advances in robotics ...” A quadruped robot
created by Boston Dynamics called the Cheetah was funded
by this program. Clocked at running over 29 MPH, it is
billed as the fastest legged robot in existence.
The Phoenix is a space science program. It was
designed to create mission-critical satellites that could
operate for their entire existence in outer space in a
geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO), without repairs or
Then, finally we come to the fifth program: the DARPA
Robotics Challenge. The DRC came about as a reaction to
Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown in 2011.
The competition tasks were chosen based on the problems
that occurred during the attempted shutdown of the plant
and containment of the radiation.
What Exactly is the DARPA
The DRC is a competition designed around the idea
that when a natural or man-made disaster strikes — such as
the disaster at the nuclear power plant in Japan — there
would be human-assisted (tele-operated) robots that could
be deployed to help out the humans in a number of specific
tasks using standard tools and equipment, including a
vehicle. This would be especially useful in areas where the
danger was high to human rescue workers — such as
collapsed buildings in war zones, terror incidents, or
accidents, as well as the danger that would be found at a
damaged and highly radioactive nuclear power plant.
In DARPA’s own words:
“The DRC Finals will require robots to attempt a circuit
of consecutive physical tasks, with degraded
communications between the robots and their operators;
the winning team will receive a $2 million grand prize;
DARPA plans to award $1 million to the runner-up, and
$500,000 to the third-place team.”
The DRC Trials occurred in December 2013 and tasked
the teams of roboticists with a set of goals similar to what
would be in the Finals. To become part of the DRC Finals, a
team first had to qualify unless they had competed at the
Trials and had received at least eight points.
Competing robots are operated remotely, along with
having some autonomous capabilities. DARPA encouraged
robot autonomy by “degrading” communication which
forced competitors to either wait out the lack of
communication or develop autonomous software to
continue during these data “brownouts.”
Many of the teams did not add much autonomy, and
instead waited out the long periods of degraded
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