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Tiny robots to soon compete in Olympic-style tests

The US defence research agency is seeking designs for tiny robots to compete in Olympic-style evaluations, in an effort to develop machines that can be deployed for search and rescue operation in locations that are dangerous or inaccessible to humans. Under a new programme proposed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the US, the bots will compete against each other to test strength, speed and agility.
In a natural disaster scenario, such as an earthquake, having the ability to navigate the rubble and enter highly unstable areas could prove invaluable to saving lives or detecting additional hazards among the wreckage. Partnering rescue personnel with robots to evaluate high-risk scenarios and environments can help increase the likelihood of successful search and recovery efforts, or other critical tasks while minimising the threat to human teams. “Whether in a natural disaster scenario, a search and rescue mission, a hazardous environment, or other critical relief situation, robots have the potential to provide much needed aide and support,” said Ronald Polcawich, a DARPA programme manager in the Microsystems Technology Office (MTO).
“However, there are a number of environments that are inaccessible for larger robotic platforms. Smaller robotics systems could provide significant aide, but shrinking down these platforms requires significant advancement of the underlying technology,” said Polcawich. To help overcome these challenges, DARPA is launching a new programme called SHort-Range Independent Microrobotic Platforms (SHRIMP). The goal of SHRIMP is to develop and demonstrate multi-functional micro-to-milli robotic platforms for use in natural and critical disaster scenarios.
SHRIMP will explore research in actuator materials and mechanisms as well as power storage components, both of which are necessary to create the strength, dexterity, and independence of functional microrobotics platforms. Actuator technologies greatly affect a robotic platform’s mobility, load-bearing capacity, and dexterity, among other capabilities. Under the SHRIMP program, researchers will work to push beyond the current state-of-the-art and develop actuator materials and mechanisms that prioritize force generation, efficiency, strength-to-weight ratio, and maximum work density.
As SHRIMP aims to create complex micro-to-milli robots that operate independently, creating compact power sources and converters that can support high-voltage actuation mechanisms and significantly reduce battery drain becomes critical.
Researchers will be further challenged to bring the fundamental research efforts together with engineering problem solving to develop and demonstrate multi-functional micro-to-milli scale robotics platforms that deliver untethered mobility, maneuverability, and dexterity.
The SHRIMP platforms will be evaluated using many of the same principles employed in the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Robotics Test Facility, which has been adapted for micro-to-milli robotic platforms. To determine potential field utility, each participating team will compete in an Olympic-style evaluation to test the platform’s mobility, maneuverability across flat and inclined surfaces, load-bearing capability, speed, and other capabilities.