Roboticists from 47 teams are preparing to take part in Europe’s answer to the U.S. Department of Defense’s Grand Challenge (last year’s robotic car race aimed at encouraging research into autonomous cars).
This first European Land-Robot Trial, to take place in Germany on May 15, will pit against each other teams from nine countries, representing both academia and industry. Unlike the U.S. Grand Challenge, organized by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is a single 132-mile race in the desert, the European version will consist of three different events, putting robots to the test in urban, non-urban, and landmine detection and removal scenarios.
Despite the obvious comparisons with the Grand Challenge, the European organizers stress that their event is not so much a competition as an evaluation of existing technology. “The objective here is more an assessment of where the technology is today,” says Henrik Christensen, chairman of the European Robotics Network at Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and one of the event’s judges.
Indeed, whereas the Grand Challenge awarded a $2 million prize to the fastest autonomous vehicle to complete its 132-mile course, the European robotic challenge offers no cash incentives at all. Furthermore, instead of having one overall winner, the event will award commendations for different categories, including “best overall performance” and “most technical solution,” says Christensen.
The trials will take place in and around Hammelburg, a mockup of a town used by the German military for training exercises. In the non-urban course the robots will have to contend with a one-kilometer route containing ditches, barbed wire fences, cattle guards, fires, narrow underpasses, and inclines of up to 40 degrees.
The urban and landmine 500-meter trials will require the robots to negotiate doorways, stairs, partially collapsed buildings, and poor visibility from smoke or partial lighting. Along the way, they will also have to search for designated objects and report their findings back to base.
As if the trials weren’t enough, “military” obstacles capable of disabling a robot if struck will be placed randomly along the routes. Precisely what these objects are will not be revealed until the day of trials, says Markus Lueck, one of the event’s organizers. There’s a high degree of realism to the trials, he says, down to the type of fake explosive used in the landmines: “We use a special fluid normally used for training that is chemically nearly exactly the same as explosives.”