The Department of Defense is asking for help in building more energy-efficient robots.
The government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has issued a notice looking for research proposals for its Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) project, a program that launched last year. Through the M3 program, Defense Department officials are looking to improve all aspects of robot creation and operations, from creating better manufacturing processors to enhanced performance to better controls and greater mobility.
Within this program is the M3 Actuation effort, where DARPA officials want to see a 2,000 percent improvement in the efficiency of power transmission and use in robots, with the eventual goal of enhancing what the robots can do.
The Defense Department sees a broad range of applications for robots, from machines that drive into an industrial disaster area and shut off valves leaking toxic steam to robots that can disarm roadside bombs to a robot that can carry hundreds of pounds of equipment over rocky terrain. The problem, according to DARPA, is that robots now are very inefficient, so they can't be used in such situations.
"Humans and animals have evolved to consume energy very efficiently," DARPA officials said in a July 3 statement. "Bones, muscles and tendons work together for propulsion using as little energy as possible. If robotic actuation can be made to approach the efficiency of human and animal actuation, the range of practical robotic applications will greatly increase and robot design will be less limited by power plant considerations."
DARPA officials are hoping that with outside help, they can greatly improve on the efficiency of robots. They figure it will take input from people and organizations from an array of scientific and engineering specialties, from low-loss power modulation and high-bandwidth variable impedance matching to gravitational load cancellation and high-efficiency power transmission between joints.
The M3 Actuation program will run on two tracks, according to DARPA. The first will aim to develop high-efficiency actuation technology that will enable robots similar to those being developed in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) platform to have 20 times more endurance than those actually in the DRC program when running untethered to a power source. Currently those robots have about 10 to 20 minutes of use.
The second track will be to work at improving the efficiency of robots that are both larger and smaller than those in the DRC program.
The M3 Actuation program will run in parallel with the DRC. Unlike the first track, the second track is more theoretical. Participants in both tracks will share their design approaches at the first DRC live competition scheduled for December 2013. Robots from the first track will be demonstrated though not compete at the second DRC competition in December 2014, according to DARPA officials.