NASA Selects Entry For DARPA Robotic Competition

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

With two possible entries for an upcoming robotic challenge, NASA opts for the more manoeuvrable machine

The team at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has created a new robot called Surrogate, or Surge for short.

The robot was a possible entry for next year’s DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) finale, but in the end the team decided to submit an older robot for the competition, as it is more manoeuvrable.

Difficult Challenge

The DRC has been set up as an extremely difficult competition to see who can develop a robot capable of assisting humans in responding to natural and man-made disasters. Teams compete for a $2m (£1.3m) prize.

Image from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Image from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA’s JPL have developed two robots for this competition. Its latest robot is called Surge (on the right), and unlike its predecessor, is more human-like in appearance boast two arms, a head, and a spine. It is 4.5 feet tall and weights 90.7kgs.

Surge can seen thanks to two camera that create stereo vision. It also boasts Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) equipment on its head. This gives it the ability to create 3D maps of various locations using laser beams. Unfortunately, Surge has caterpillar tracks, which makes it problematic on very rough terrain. And space to host more cameras and other technology is limited on Surge.

Those are the reasons why the NASA JPL team instead submitted their older robot for the DARPA Competition in June next year.

Their older machine is known as RoboSimian (the machine on the left), and it looks more like an ape than a human, as it has four legs that allows it climb uneven and rough terrain, including stairs and other obstacles where its caterpillar-equipped Surge brother simply cannot go.

And according to Phys.org, RoboSimian has up to seven sets of eyes and more space to mount other tech like the LiDAR equipment from Surge.

“Surge and its predecessor, RoboSimian, were designed to extend humanity’s reach, going into dangerous places such as a nuclear power plant during a disaster scenario such as we saw at Fukushima,” Brett Kennedy, principal investigator for the robots at JPL is quoted as saying. “They could take simple actions such as turning valves or flipping switches to stabilise the situation or mitigate further damage.”

And he went to explain why the team opted for the older machine.

“It comes down to the fact that Surrogate is a better manipulation platform and faster on benign surfaces, but RoboSimian is an all-around solution, and we expect that the all-around solution is going to be more competitive in this case,” Kennedy reportedly said.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory designed and built the Curiosity rover, that landed on Mars back in 2012 and explored the planet’s surface. It also conducted experiments on soil and rocks.

A full list of those teams competing in the DARPA competition can be found here.

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