DARPA seeks "non-traditional" robotics innovators

Calling all makers: The government needs new robotics solutions
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

The government has a robotics problem.

Government grants for cutting edge robotics research and development typically favor large military contractors. But a lot of the development in robotics these days comes from individuals, startups, and university labs capitalizing on developments in 3D printing and falling sensor prices. Because hardware has entered a phase of rapid iteration, the government risks missing out on cutting edge technology if it continues focusing on long-term contracts to the exclusion of short-term innovations.

Now DARPA, which funds research for national defense, wants to throw the government's money behind non-traditional robotics developers. To that end, the agency has teamed up with the Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF) and BIT Systems (BITS) on the Robotics Fast Track program (RFT).

"We spend too much time creating three- to four-year solutions for six-month problems," explains Mark Micire, DARPA program manager. "We want this new generation of robotics innovators to see DARPA as a partner that can help them develop breakthrough technologies in the areas that personally interest them and help translate their ideas and know-how into game-changing capabilities. We're eager to pioneer this new approach, which could lead to rapid, marked improvements in national security as a whole."

The program reflects the increasing democratization of robotics development, a fact DARPA is no doubt well aware of given its choice of OSRF as a partner. The non-profit organization oversees the open-source Robotic Operating System (ROS), which is fast becoming the community-supported standard architecture for both commercial and government-backed robotics projects.

A robot competing in the DARPA Robotics Challenge

"Most government programs don't have the reputation of being fast and innovative," says Brian Gerkey, CEO of OSRF. "But DARPA's Robotics Fast Track is just that. There are hundreds if not thousands of designers, students, makers, and engineers who have great ideas about robots. Our work with DARPA and BIT Systems will help bring these ideas to light."

One of those pioneering researchers is Dinesh Manocha, Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Dr. Manocha and his team are developing advanced motion and trajectory planning systems for high degree of freedom robots. One of the biggest challenges in robotics and path planning is figuring out how to enable robots to safely map and execute diverse tasks on the fly and in close proximity to people or other obstacles. They plan to integrate their technology into ROS as that provides an underlying framework to build on, which means Manocha and his team don't have to reinvent the wheel in order to innovate.

"I'm such a big fan of ROS," he tells me over the phone. "It has influenced the whole research community. If we didn't have it, I would have to do everything from scratch, which would be a nightmare."

Dr. Manocha, whose lab received Robotics Fast Track funding to support a one-year project, has long been a torch-bearer for an open source ethos that now has firm footing in the robotics community.

"We have a proud tradition of putting the modules we develop on the web for everyone to use," he tells me. "Our lab has released open source software for robotics and simulation that has been downloaded approximately 150,000 times, and is also widely used by other researchers and industry."

This week, DARPA, OSRF, and BITS are touring the west coast to drum up interest and highlight the work being done by their first grantees. True to its commitment to speed, the program, which only opened its application-cycle in May, has already issued its first awards. The program is offering grants to fund projects in six broadly defined areas of interest: space, maritime, ground, air, hardware, and software.

The west coast tour, which began in Washington State, heads to Northern California Wednesday and will be in So. Cal. Thursday. If you'd like to attend, you can find event information on OSRF's Robotics Fast Track Website.

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