While the DARPA Robotics Challenge was underway most people were watching the big bipedal robots attempting their challenges, but over at the expo area there was a different view of how robots could help.
We tend to think of the most capable robots as being like us - bipedal and with two arms complete with hands. This isn't unreasonable as it is a remarkably effective form factor for a mobile system. Not only this, but as much of the constructed world is optimized for humans, a humanoid robot should be able to cope better with it.
However, the recent DARPA Robotics Challenge demonstrated how far we are away from an effective bipedal humanoid robot. Even when one of the rescue tasks was completed. the speed and hesitancy of the approach wasn't impressive. To put it bluntly there is still a lot of room for improvement.
The alternative approach is to abandon the humanoid form factor and see what can be achieved using wheeled robots. Intelligent Automation (IAI) seems to be of the opinion that one wheeled robot is good but two is better.
The Multi-Arm Robot Control Software MARCS that it has developed works with a dual-arm torso manufactured by HDT Robotics mounted on a custom chassis with tank-style treads. A second robot from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics lab joined in with its dual-arm platform to remove debris, stabilize the victim and transport the victim away.
What is novel about the system is the remote operator control which you can see in action towards the end of the video:
There are a few things that might have occurred to you while watching the video. The first is that even wheeled robots don't seem to get up the sort of speed that suggests they are dealing with an urgent situation. The performance is good, but it needs to be better. The second is that there is an "uncanny valley" effect relating to the the torso-mounted robot. This may not look very humanoid and there is something creepy about the way that its hands manipulate the dummy victim.
Would you want to be rescued by a robot that could make things worse by running you over or placing a neck brace on incorrectly?
Sitting safely watching the video my guess is that you feel uneasy about it all, but just imagine if you were really in need of assistance and robots were the only option.