Saturday, March 13, 2010

DARPA's ARM Challenge

UPDATE #2: Dr. Robert Mandelbaum gives IEEE Erico Guizzo a progress report as of mid-October on this project and provides wonderful photos. Click to read.

For many years now, engineers have designed robotic tools that can do specific tasks better than by hand.  For example, for putting in a screw they would simply design an arm with a screwdriver on the end.

But DARPA wants a multiple-purpose hand, actually two hands working together.  DARPA is attempting to get a robotic autonomous manipulator that mimics the human hand and which can be used for multiple purposes.  They want a hand that can do one task well and then do a completely different job immediately afterwards.

UPDATE: On March 16th, DARPA chose Barrett Technology to lead the hardware development portion of the project and RE2 (RE Squared) to do the integration. DARPA has yet to select a set of teams who will be given identical Barrett hardware and will be tasked to develop software to maximize the hardware's capabilities and meet DARPA's goals. RE2 will integrate the Barrett technology with various sensing technologies and a mobile platform for the teams to utilize during the program.

Initially, DARPA wants the hand to accomplish three major tasks:
  1. Open up a duffle bag, search through the contents and find a revolver that is hiding inside.  This requires the ability to handle flexible material like clothing and have force feedback to feel for objects (rather than just relying on sensor cues).  Further, they are asking for bimanual coordination, that is, the ability to use two hands at once.  One hand to hold onto the bag and the other to open the zipper.
  2. The next task will be rubble removal for search and rescue - picking up oddly shaped objects with both arms.
  3. The Third challenge will require that the arms insert one object into another, e.g.: a shell into a mortar.
One can easily see all the other civilian and defense uses for these two hands.  For defense, explosive ordnance disposal, casualty care, search and rescue, weapons support, checkpoint and access control, operations in extreme environments like space and underwater.  For civilian operations the uses are wide open - and exciting to ponder.  Hold a jar and unscrew the lid, assemble an object from a kit of parts, insert a battery into a device, pour a glass of water, fit a connector into a receptacle, put a cap on a pen, apply duct tape, remove duct tape, tie a knot, remove an item from a wallet, etc.  As a prosthetic or as the hand on a robotic assistant, this initiative is wonderful to behold.

There are two tracks: software and hardware.  Estimated time: 3 years and 9 months.

Software: in three phases:
  1. Grasping and manipulation - 15 months, up to 6 teams
  2. Complex grasping and bimanual manipulation - 15 months, up to 4 teams
  3. Mobile bimanual manipulation in real-world tasks - 18 months, up to 2 teams
Hardware: also three phases:
  1. Hand design and critical design review - 12 months, up to 3 teams
  2. Hand development and production of multiple copies - 15 months, 1 team
  3. Hand maintenance and support - 18 months, 1 team
The challenge for the hardware track is the hand cannot be prohibitively expensive.

It will take three years and nine months to complete the project... mid-2014.  I can't wait!