DARPA program targets 20-fold increase in robot range, endurance

Power supplies, in part limit today’s robots

How do you keep a robot from getting tired? Sounds like the set-up line for a joke, but the scientists at Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have put out a call for technology that significantly bolsters robot energy efficiency while increasing its range and endurance.

Within what it calls the Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) program DARPA said it wants to develop and demonstrate high efficiency "actuation technology" that will let robots similar to the DARPA Robotics Challenge have 20 times longer endurance.  The Robotics Challenge, which starts in October, is looking to build machines that will compete in staged situations in which robots will have to successfully navigate a series of physical tasks in a real-world disaster-response.  

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According to DARPA, The Robotics Challenge is going to test supervised autonomy in perception and decision-making, mounted and dismounted mobility, dexterity, strength and endurance in an environment designed for human use but degraded due to a disaster.  "Adaptability is also essential because we don't know where the next disaster will strike.  The key to successfully completing this challenge requires adaptable robots with the ability to use available human tools, from hand tools to vehicles."

With regards to the M3 Actuation program, DARPA says: "Animals operate with significantly higher energy efficiency than today's robots. For example, a horse travels with a specific resistance1 of 0.01 to 0.02, compared to a specific resistance of 1 to 3 for several current legged robots.  Specific resistance is a dimensionless quantity that is similar to a thrust to weight ratio, calculated as the ratio of mechanical input power to the product of mass, gravitational acceleration, and velocity. This difference of two orders of magnitude is believed to be due in large part to differences in the efficiency of actuation."

A robot that carries hundreds of pounds of equipment over rocky or wooded terrain would increase the range warfighters can travel and the speed at which they move. But a robot that runs out of power after ten to twenty minutes of operation is limited in its utility. In fact, use of robots in defense missions is currently constrained in part by power supply issues.

DARPA says research and development will cover two tracks of work:

  • Track 1 asks performer teams to develop and demonstrate high-efficiency actuation technology that will allow robots similar to the DARPA Robotics Challenge Government Furnished Equipment platform to have twenty times longer endurance than the DRC robots when running on untethered battery power (currently only 10-20 minutes). M3 Actuation performers will have to build a robot that incorporates the new actuation technology. These robots will be demonstrated at, but not compete in, the second Robotics Challenge live competition scheduled for December 2014.
  • Track 2 will be tailored to performers who want to explore ways of improving the efficiency of actuators, but at scales both larger and smaller than applicable to the Robotics Challenge platform, and at technical readiness levels insufficient for incorporation into a platform during this program. Essentially, Track 2 seeks to advance the science and engineering behind actuation without the requirement to apply it at this point.

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