It was only a few months ago that DARPA initiated their ambitious Robotics Challenge that reserves a cash prize for a (probably) humanoid robot that can drive to a disaster area and perform several rescue functions including breaking through rubble and closing off a leaky pipe. But a rescue robot won’t be worth much if it runs out of power halfway through its heroics. In hopes of addressing future – and current – robotics power constraints, DARPA has launched their Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) Actuation program, “with the goal of achieving a 2,000 percent increase in the efficiency of power transmission and application in robots.”
Just as DARPA and other humanoid robot developers have drawn on biology for design inspiration, the agency hopes that robotic actuation can approach the efficiency of human and animal actuation where muscles, tendons, and bones cooperate in highly efficient ways. More efficient actuator technologies would benefit, not only robotics systems, but all actuated systems, such as prosthetic limbs.
There’s much room for improvement. The Government Furnished Equipment (GFE) platform DARPA currently provides for the DARPA Robotics Challenge has a battery life of just 10 to 20 minutes. The explicit goal of the M3 Actuation program is to improve power longevity by 20-fold, affording the GFE in the range of 3 to 6 or 7 hours to complete the multi-tasked Robotics Challenge.
A 20-fold increase in efficiency is a tall order, to say the least. How much of an increase can really be squeezed from maximizing “variable recruitment of parallel transducer elements” or high-efficiency power transmission between joints?” The fact that the M3 Actuation program has two separate tracks implies that DARPA is aware that such a massive increase in efficiency may require entirely new technologies. For Track 1, teams will develop technologies to be tested with the GFE platform during the second live Robotics Challenge competition to be held December 2014. Track 2 teams are free to develop their own platforms from scratch without the pressure of actually having to apply it within the competition timeframe. Track 2′s open-ended strategy has the potential to generate the groundbreaking advances in nanotechnology, for example, to actually achieve the 20-fold increase. As is, the robots entering the Robotics Challenge will likely be tethered to a power source throughout the competition.
Given that the tasks required by the Robotics Challenge’s simulated disaster obstacle course are – to say the least – complex, inefficient solutions from developers – even DARPA chums Boston Dynamics – should probably be expected. But the convergent approach of both robotics solutions and actuator efficiency that DARPA is taking should be applauded. It’s a long-term approach of an agency with a history of game changing visions – not to mention the budgets to support those visions.