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euRathlon and the DARPA Robot Challenge: A difference of approach

July 22, 2013

A week ago the DARPA Robotics Challenge unveiled the ATLAS humanoid robot, which will be used by seven competing teams. Developed by Boston Dynamics, ATLAS is an imposing 1.8m 150Kg bipedal humanoid robot, powered via a tethered cable. Another six teams have designed their own robots, and interestingly five of these are humanoid, and one a four-limbed simian-inspired robot.

In the euRathlon project we are taking a different approach in that we don’t expect, or require, the competing robots to be humanoid or zoomorphic. None of the euRathlon competition scenarios demand a humanoid robot to, for example, be able to step inside a vehicle and drive it. However, for the land robots at least, there is nothing stopping euRathlon teams from bringing humanoid robots to the competition.


As I wrote when we launched euRathlon early this year, the big vision of euRathlon is a competition scenario in which no single type of robot is, on its own, sufficient. Inspired by the Fukushima accident of March 2011, the 2015 euRathlon competition will require teams of land, sea and flying robots to autonomously cooperate, survey the scene, identify critical hazards and undertake tasks to make the plant safe. Leading up to this grand challenge in 2015, will be related and preparatory land and underwater robot competitions in 2013 and 2014, respectively.


The difference of our approach is not the result of an in-principle decision. Rather, it flows naturally from several factors. First, we are specifically creating competition scenarios that require cooperating teams across the three domains of land, sea and air. Second, we are looking for very high levels of autonomy, so the robot teams will, ideally, complete their mission with hands-off human monitoring only. Any human interventions will be penalised in the euRathlon scoring schema. And third, we are not looking to push innovation in the robot platforms themselves, but rather in their cognition, autonomy and system level team working. Thus, euRathlon teams who make use of existing and proven robot hardware will gain a big advantage in that they can focus all of their efforts on the software, communications and systems engineering; the AI and the autonomy. And by autonomy we mean both control and energy autonomy. The euRathlon competition scenarios preclude the use of tethered power connections, so robots must carry their own energy supplies sufficient to last the whole mission.

For these reasons the euRathlon robots are likely to look rather conventional: wheeled or tracked land robots; fixed or rotary wing (i.e. quadcopter) flying robots, and ROV-type underwater robots. Not as dramatic as the DARPA robot challenge humanoid or animal-like robots perhaps, but looks can be deceptive: the real innovation in the euRathlon robots will be in the autonomous cooperation across the three domains. Something that has not been demonstrated in realistic outdoor disaster response scenarios.

Of course there is nothing to stop euRathlon teams from using a bio-mimetic approach, so fish-like underwater robot cooperate with bird-like flying robots, and legged animal-like land robots. That really would be something!

Related blog posts:
euRathlon is go! (Feb 2013)
Real-world robotics reality check (May 2010)
A truly Grand Challenge (August 2007)

Alan Winfield is Professor in robotics at UWE Bristol. He communicates about science on his personal blog... read more

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