End the Lie
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which acts as a kind of mad scientist arm of the Pentagon, has put a significant focus on robotics over recent years. Even the Navy is getting in on the action with their unbelievable SAFFiR robot.
Now they’re clearing out the significant numbers of out-of-date robots to give them to police departments while spending millions of dollars of taxpayer funds we don’t even have in order to continue to buildnewer and more human-like robots.
Keep in mind, we aren’t talking about cool robots that will scramble you some eggs and make toast in the morning. We’re talking about war machines, although some might be slightly cuter than others. After all, this is the Department of “Defense” we are talking about here.
While some of these advances could indeed be used for good, like mind-controlled robots and wheelchairs for the injured or disabled, a kind of “electric skin,” etc. these positive applications are overshadowed by inherently militaristic nature of DARPA’s work.
One of the many programs DARPA is now focusing on – which we know very little about, as per usual – is their Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) project, which actually began last year.
The M3 program is focused on funneling spending into research aimed at improving just about everything involved in the creation, production and operation of robots.
Obviously some of these intended improvements are maximum mobility and manipulation, but also better manufacturing processes, enhanced performance, and most of all, energy efficiency.
Currently, one of the biggest drawbacks to militarized robot technology is the relatively high power demands and thus inefficiency of the units.
For instance, SAFFiR is not nearly as powerful as it could be if it could actually run for an hour or longer. Such inefficiencies render these types of technologies nearly useless for actual operations in the field.
“Humans and animals have evolved to consume energy very efficiently for movement,” DARPA officials said in a July 3 statement.
“Bones, muscles and tendons work together for propulsion using as little energy as possible,” the statement continues.
“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.”
As always, DARPA is reaching out to individuals and organizations in various fields to push this drive towards maximum efficiency.
According to the DARPA press release, the M3 program will actually be divided into two separate tracks of work and research.
Track one will task teams with the development and demonstration of “high-efficiency actuation technology that will allow robots similar to the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Government Furnished Equipment (GFE) platform to have twenty times longer endurance than the DRC GFE when running on untethered battery power (currently only 10-20 minutes).”
DARPA is looking to turn those 10-20 minutes of power into about 200. Quite a task indeed but if any agency is able to find people who can help them make such a technological leap, I’d say DARPA would be it.
Quite stunning, however, is the relatively small timeframe they expect this to be completed in.
“These robots will be demonstrated at, but not compete in, the second DRC live competition scheduled for December 2014,” the release states.
Track two of the M3 program focuses on improving actuator efficiency like track one, however, this is for scales smaller or larger than the DRC GFE platform.
They add that this track is focused on developing technologies “at technical readiness levels insufficient for incorporation into a platform during this program.”
“Essentially, Track 2 seeks to advance the science and engineering behind actuation without the requirement to apply it at this point,” states the release.
On top of demonstrating the systems live in December 2014, participants are expected to share their design approaches in December 2013 at the DARPA Robotics Challenge.
“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,” said DARPA program manager Gill Pratt. “Success in the M3 Actuation effort would benefit not just robotics programs, but all engineered, actuated systems, including advanced prosthetic limbs.”
Of course, Pratt throws in advanced prosthetic limbs – a positive application of this type of technology – while slightly glossing over the fact that this is a military research program designed for military applications.
Anyone who thinks that programs like Living Foundries, M3, or any other DARPA program for that matter, are actually for the good of the American people needs to seriously re-examine DARPA’s work and how it has been used.