What happens when the stuff we build comes crashing down on us?
It's a question that's not allowed to stray far from mind in an age of 24-hour news, climate uncertainty, and global strife. It's also one area where automation has near-unanimous support.
Robots are playing a growing role in how we respond to disasters. In Japan, bots are helping decommission the Fukushima power plant. Robots are being used to fight fires and recently assisted in the rescue of the trapped Thai soccer team. Major companies like Honda are developing fast, nimble platforms to go in when and where human responders can't.
Also: Miniature robots could eat individual cancer cells
And now DARPA, which played a crucial role in developing such hits as the Internet, has decided to add a characteristic twist.
Through a new grant program, DARPA, the military's mad scientist funding wing, is commissioning the next generation of disaster-response robots. Their defining characteristic will be their size.
Named SHRIMP (short for SHort-Range Independent Microrobotic Platforms), the program will focus on micro robots, those small enough to scurry down a drainpipe or even a garden hose.
"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 Dr. Ronald Polcawich, a DARPA program 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."
The DARPA program aims to spur development in so-called microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). The goal is to "develop and demonstrate multi-functional micro-to-milli robotic platforms for use in natural and critical disaster scenarios," according to a spokesperson.
Grant teams will be experimenting with actuator materials and power storage, as well as various controls strategies.
One of the biggest constraints of shrinking robotic systems is power. Currently, most micro-robots are tethered, allowing them to draw juice from an external source. One of the stated foci of SHRIMP is to bring power onboard, which would allow engineers to cut the cord.
The systems developed in SHRIMP will likely be candidates for swarm applications, in which multiple systems coordinate efforts toward a common goal.
The program is conceived of and has been described as an Olympics for micro-robots. DARPA will pit teams in a series of events measuring things like jumping distance and height, weight lifting, and even the distance the robots can hurl a mass, a la the shot put.
Proposals for the project are due in September. Evaluations could take place as soon as March of next year.