On a sunny day late last December on the track of the Homestead Miami Speedway in Florida, humanoid robots representing 16 teams from around the world opened doors, turned valves, cut through walls, struggled to climb ladders and drove all-terrain vehicles. The competition was only the first set of trials in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's "Robotics Challenge." DARPA is exploring how engineers can apply the repetitive and algorithm-driven advantages of modern robotics to the varied and often unpredictable environments of disaster zones and, by extension, real-world working situations, such as construction jobsites.
DARPA, a division of the U.S. Dept. of Defense, focused on funding the development of emerging technologies, announced the challenge after the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear powerplant in Japan. The devastation wrought by the tsunami and the plant's ensuing radiation leaks hampered response and containment efforts. DARPA's trials are designed around the tasks a human might have to perform in a similar disaster-response scenario.