Life imitates art: Meet Pet-Proto, the ‘iRobot’ that acts like a human being (WATCH)

by Rachel Ogbu

Meet Pet-Proto, a Boston Dynamics-designed bipedal robot that is capable of analyzing and navigating complex obstacle courses, making decisions autonomously, and with, if not the actual dexterity of a human being, at least the functional semblance of one.

Pet-Proto is part of DARPA‘s (Defense Advance Research Projects Agency) work to promote its ambitious DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), which initiated its second phase on Wednesday, October 24 since launching back in April.

This is the start of what’ll amount to a two-year ordeal for teams competing to design, tweak and test rescue either humanoid or non-humanoid robots: ultra-agile, durable mechanical servants capable of going where most humans wouldn’t dare, say exploring collapsed mines and helping to rescue trapped miners, defusing improvised explosive devices, or working around nuclear meltdown incidents like Fukushima, Chernobyl or Three Mile Island.

All teams have to do is create robots that can perform tasks like: drive a utility vehicle, climb a wobbly industrial ladder, shatter a concrete wall using a power tool, cross a debris-littered field, isolate and close a valve in a leaking pipe and replace industrial equipment.

“Robot enthusiasts, the time has come,” says DARPA on its website. “The DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) begins today. Will you be part of it?”

The winner gets $2 million.

The completion got even more interesting.  For instance the newly announced Track C, which allows participants to compete without touching actual machine parts will involve using something DARPA calls its “DRC Simulator,” an open-source, cloud-based robotics design tool, and all you need to work it is a little software development know-how and an appetite for robotic simulation.

“The DRC Simulator is going to be one of DARPA’s legacies to the robotics community,” says DRC program manager Gill Pratt. “One of DARPA’s goals for the Challenge is to catalyze robotics development across all fields so that we as a community end up with more capable, more affordable robots that are easier to operate. The value of a cloud-based simulator is that it gives talent from any location a common space to train, design, test and collaborate on ideas without the need for expensive hardware and prototyping. That opens the door to innovation.”

The DRC Simulator has only been in development for a month, according to DARPA, and its future already sounds bright, with a melange of improvements in the offing, including new “models of robots, perception sensors and field environments” that should ultimately allow the simulator to “function as a cloud-based, real-time, operator-interactive virtual test bed that uses physics-based models of inertia, actuation, contact and environment dynamics.”

What about Pet-Proto? As its name suggests, it’s just a prototype — part of how DARPA’s promoting the contest. Pet-Proto is really a predecessor to something theoretically more sophisticated that Boston Dynamics is working on, dubbed “Atlas.”

DARPA says challenge participants selected to advance will receive Government Funded Equipment (GFE) “in the form of a modified robot platform based on the Atlas robot.” In other words, if you make it through the initial hurdles, you get to play with (and work on) something like that.

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