The Pentagon Wants These Robots To Save The Day | KUOW News and Information

The Pentagon Wants These Robots To Save The Day

Jun 5, 2015
Originally published on June 6, 2015 4:13 am

On Friday, 24 robots and their masters will be going head-to-head in California for a $2 million prize. The robotics challenge is sponsored by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Those fearing the Pentagon-sponsored prize could signal the dawn of Terminator-style cyborgs needn't worry. "Even though they look like us, and they may look a little bit mean, there's really nothing inside," says Gill Pratt, the program manager running this competition. "What you're really seeing is a puppet."

Pratt adds that the competition is about disaster relief, not war. The motivation comes from when the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan melted down in March 2011. The Pentagon sent in some of the best robots it had to areas too dangerous for humans, but the robots struggled. They couldn't open doors; they got snagged in rubble; communications were spotty.

"The particular capabilities those robots had weren't really up to the tasks that needed to happen," Pratt says.

The competition tries to make up for some of the shortcomings Pratt saw at Fukushima. The machines and their teams will perform eight tasks, including driving a car, using tools, opening valves and climbing over debris. Throughout, communication between the robots and the people running them will be degraded to simulate a real disaster.

Robotics Engineer Dennis Hong says it's a tall order.

"Just [asking] a robot to pick up a cup on a table is a very, very, very difficult task to do," he says.

Hong works at UCLA and has a robot in the competition called THOR. Real robots are awkward, and they're not very smart, as Brett Kennedy who works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory points out. He's also got a robot in the competition and a 4-year-old daughter at home.

"Unlike your child, the robot's going to do exactly what you tell it, so if you don't tell it to do the right thing, it's going to do the wrong thing," Kennedy says.

Take opening a door. If the operator doesn't tell the robot exactly where the knob is, "then you just miss the door handle," he says.

The competition's goals are modest: Robots will be given an hour to complete all the tasks. Humans could do them in about 10 minutes, Pratt says.

But progress is possible. Ten years ago, the Pentagon held a competition for self-driving cars. Many of the winning engineers were hired by Google, Pratt says. And today, Google is testing self-driving cars on the open road.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Robots are going head-to-head in a competition this morning in California. It's not quite the type of thing you might remember from a high school science fair. This robotics challenge is sponsored by the Department of Defense. We asked NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel to have a look at what they're up to.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: I grew up in the 1980s. So when I hear the Pentagon's developing a new generation of faster, smarter robots, all I can think of is "The Terminator."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TERMINATOR")

MICHAEL BIEHN: (As Kyle Reese) The Terminator's an infiltration unit, part man, part machine. Underneath, it's a hyper-alloy combat chassis, microprocessor-controlled, fully armored, very tough. But outside...

BRUMFIEL: When I called the government's Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, I got straight to the point.

We've all seen the movies. We've seen "Terminator." We know what you're up to - killer robots, obviously - right?

GILL PRATT: Well, so I would beg to differ. That's not what we're up to.

BRUMFIEL: Gill Pratt is running this competition. And he says the military's motivation comes from the real world, not the movies. In March of 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan melted down. Radiation was everywhere. The Pentagon sent in some of the best robots it had to go where no humans could. But the robots struggled. They couldn't open doors. They got snagged in rubble. Communications were spotty.

PRATT: The particular capabilities those robots had were really not up to the task that needed to happen.

BRUMFIEL: That's how this robotic challenge was born. The robots will be asked to work in a mock disaster zone based on Fukushima. They must use tools, open a valve, climb over debris and get out, all with bad communications between the robots and the people running them. Robotics engineer Dennis Hong says it's a tall order.

DENNIS HONG: Just a robot to pick up a cup on a table is a very, very, very difficult task to do.

BRUMFIEL: Hong works at UCLA and has a robot in the competition called THOR.

HONG: (Through voice synthesizer) Do not fear me, NPR listeners. I am THOR, Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot, and I am here to help.

BRUMFIEL: Actually, robots can't talk. That's just Hong typing into a voice synthesizer. There's a lot of other things robots can't do either.

HONG: We have a lot of people come to our lab, and we show our robots. They walk and do things. And everybody's amazed. But after about 30 seconds, the kids always ask, why can't it do that? Why can't it climb this ladder? Why can't it run around? And I tell them, no, we don't have that technology yet, but we're working on it. And they say, no, no, no, I saw it last week. Of course, they saw it on TV and science fiction movies.

BRUMFIEL: Real robots are awkward, and they're not very smart. Brett Kennedy works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He's also got a robot in the competition and a 4-year-old daughter at home.

BRETT KENNEDY: Unlike your child, the robot's going to do exactly what you tell it. So if you don't tell it the right thing, it's going to do the wrong thing.

BRUMFIEL: Take opening a door. If the operator doesn't tell the robot exactly where the knob is...

KENNEDY: Then you just missed the door handle.

BRUMFIEL: But progress is possible. Ten years ago, the Pentagon held a competition for self-driving cars. Many of the winning engineers were hired by Google. And today, Google has self-driving cars being tested on the open road. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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And I'm @nprmontagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.