Rescue Bot In the DARPA Robotics Challenge, robots will compete in a variety of tasks, including the use of tools to cut through a wall. THOR, a humanoid bot built by a Virginia Tech–led team, has especially powerful legs. It should prove adept at maneuvering over terrain and past obstacles. Nick Kaloterakis

How To Build A Hero

Humans regularly lose their lives rushing into disaster zones. Now engineers are racing to build robots that can take their place.

By Erik Sofge
Posted 01.21.2013 at 10:00 am

By the end of next year, robots will walk into a disaster zone. They won’t roll in on wheels or rumble in on treads. They will walk, striding across rubble, most of them balancing on two legs. Compared with human first responders, the machines will move slowly and halt frequently. But what they lack in speed, they make up for in resilience and disposability. Chemical fires can’t sear a robot’s lungs, and a lifespan cut short by gamma rays is a logistical snag rather than a tragedy.

They’ll have the mobility to do what robots couldn’t at Fukushima, navigating a crisis that unfolds in an environment lousy with doors, stairs, shattered infrastructure, and countless other obstacles. Where previous humanoid bots could barely trundle over the lip of a carpet, these systems will have to climb ladders and slide into vehicles that they themselves drive. And while the ability to turn a doorknob is now cause for celebration even in top-tier robotics labs, these bots will open what doors they can and use power tools to hammer or saw through the ones they can’t.

Because disasters tend to degrade or knock out communication, the surrogates will have a surprising amount of responsibility. Very few, if any, will be tele-operated systems, driven remotely by people using a joystick or wearing sensor gloves. The humanoids will take orders from distant humans, but they’ll use their own algorithms to determine how to properly grip a Sawzall, where to start cutting, and for how long.

Read more: How To Build A Hero | Popular Science.

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