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DARPA Seeks More Efficient Robots

Agency challenges innovators to develop technology that improves robotic mobility and control.

Defense Robots: Fast, Flexible, And Tough
Defense Robots: Fast, Flexible, And Tough
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Robots are about two orders of magnitude less efficient than humans and animals in using energy to produce motion, which limits their usefulness for military and other applications, according to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

To address this limitation, DARPA has issued a solicitation to industry for help in developing "actuation" technologies--those involved in a robot's movement--with a goal of achieving a 2,000% increase in power transmission efficiency.

DARPA's Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) program, inaugurated in March 2011, is aimed at developing design tools to improve robotic performance, improve fabrication processes and control methods for mobility and manipulation, and produce prototypes.

[ DARPA's competition to develop a more sophisticated spy drone ended with disappointing results. Read about it here: Drones Fail 'Perch And Stare' Contest. ]

The M3 actuation project expands on DARPA's robotics R&D efforts. "By exploring multiple aspects of robot design, capabilities, control, and production, we hope to converge on an adaptable core of robot technologies that can be applied across mission areas," Gill Pratt, DARPA's M3 program manager, said in a written statement. "Success in the M3 Actuation effort would benefit not just robotics programs, but all engineered, actuated systems, including advanced prosthetic limbs."

The solicitation outlines two goals. In one, bidders will be asked to develop and demonstrate high-efficiency actuation technology that lets robots similar to those using the DARPA Robotics Challenge's government-furnished equipment platform have 20 times longer endurance than is currently possible (only 10 to 20 minutes), or up to 400 minutes. Companies will be expected to share their design approach at DARPA's Robotics Challenge in December 2013 and demonstrate their systems a year later. Awards will be limited to $2.5 million per project per phase.

In a second track, bidders will be asked to conduct basic scientific and engineering research into improving the efficiency of actuators, without requiring that it be applied. Those awards are capped at $500,000 per project per phase, or $1 million maximum.

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