Darpa, the Pentagon's mad science division, wants to teach little mechanical puppies to think. Hopefully, that'll let the bots run around with soldiers on the battlefield one day.darpa_doggie.jpgGetting robots to maneuver around rocks and trees and potholes is tough -- just ask any of the tinkerers whose bots bit the dust during last year's all-drone off-road rally across the Mojave Desert.One way around the problem, some drone-makers think, is to give their creations legs, so that they can maneuver just like a person or an animal would. But that's easier said than done. Walking, it turns out, requires a zillion tiny calculations to keep balance and avoid obstacles. It's so complex, Darpa notes, that "handcrafting the control laws and parameters" needed for robots to hike "may not even be possible with reasonable effort." So instead, Darpa would like to get the bots to figure out how to walk on their own.

In the Learning Locomotion program, algorithms will be created that learn how to locomote based on the experience of a legged platform confronting extreme terrain. It is expected that the performance of these algorithms will far exceed the performance of handcrafted systems, creating a breakthrough in locomotion over extreme terrain. Further, it is expected that these algorithms will be broadly applicable to the class of agile ground vehicles.
Darpa is planning on handing out a series of $600-800,000 contracts to try to teach drones to walk. And the robots the agency wants researchers to train are 6.6 pound, 10.6 inch-long "Little Dogs."During the 15-month first phase of the "Learning Locomotion" project, Darpa wants the pooches to be able to travel .6 of an inch per second, and scale obstacles about 2.5 inches tall. For Phase II, those numbers should go up to approximately 3.8 inches and 5.7 inches, respectively.That may not sound like much. Bu the drones will have to be smart enough that that can "learn 'on-the-fly' how to traverse new obstacle types," Darpa tells researchers. "Government tests will measure the ability of the performer systems to learn from experience."This isn't the only Darpa program to try to get ground-based bots to think. Nor is this the only Defense Department project which involves dog-like drones. Last year, the Army doled out $2.25 million to two robotics firms to prototype a big, mechanical pooch capable of carrying ammunition, food and supplies into battle.THERE'S MORE: Oh, this rules.
Flesh and bone triumphed in the first ever man-versus-machine battle of brawn - an arm wrestling contest between robots and humans in California on Monday.The champion, beating all three robotic arms each in matter of seconds, was a 17-year-old girl called Panna Felsen, a high school student from San Diego, US.The contest was set up by Yoseph Bar-Cohen at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, California, US, in an attempt to encourage the development of polymer-based artificial muscles... The ultimate aim is to have an artificial arm beat the world's strongest person, says Bar-Cohen. But for now he wanted to make the challenge slightly more attainable which is why Panna, a self-confessed wimp, was chosen to represent humanity.Despite her lack of strength, training and technique, she was able to conquer the first arm... in just 24 seconds. Following this, and a pep talk from an arm wrestling expert, it took her just four seconds to beat the second arm and three seconds for her to win the last match.
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