DARPA Wants Your Insect-Scale Robots for a Micro-Olympics

SHRIMP is a new DARPA program to develop insect-scale robots for disaster recovery and high-risk environments

DARPA's SHRIMP program wants to develop insect-scale robots for disaster recovery and high-risk environments
Image: DARPA
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The DARPA Robotics Challenge was a showcase for how very large, very expensive robots could potentially be useful in disaster recovery and high-risk environments. Humanoids are particularly capable in some very specific situations, but the rest of the time, they’re probably overkill, and using smaller, cheaper, more specialized robots is much more efficient. This is especially true when you’re concerned with data collection as opposed to manipulation—for the “search” part of “search and rescue,” for example, you’re better off with lots of very small robots covering as much ground as possible.

Yesterday, DARPA announced a new program called SHRIMP: SHort-Range Independent Microrobotic Platforms. The goal is “to develop and demonstrate multi-functional micro-to-milli robotic platforms for use in natural and critical disaster scenarios.” To enable robots that are both tiny and useful, SHRIMP will support fundamental research in the component parts that are the most difficult to engineer, including actuators, mobility systems, and power storage.

From the DARPA program announcement:

Imagine a natural disaster scenario, such as an earthquake, that inflicts widespread damage to buildings and structures, critical utilities and infrastructure, and threatens human safety. Having the ability to navigate the rubble and enter highly unstable areas could prove invaluable to saving lives or detecting additional hazards among the wreckage. Partnering rescue personnel with robots to evaluate high-risk scenarios and environments can help increase the likelihood of successful search and recovery efforts, or other critical tasks while minimizing the threat to human teams.

Technological advances in microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), additive manufacturing, piezoelectric actuators, and low-power sensors have allowed researchers to expand into the realm of micro-to-milli robotics. However, due to the technical obstacles experienced as the technology shrinks, these platforms lack the power, navigation, and control to accomplish complex tasks proficiently.

To help overcome the challenges of creating extremely SWaP-constrained microrobotics, DARPA is launching a new program called SHort-Range Independent Microrobotic Platforms (SHRIMP). The goal of SHRIMP is to develop and demonstrate multi-functional micro-to-milli robotic platforms for use in natural and critical disaster scenarios. To achieve this mission, SHRIMP will explore fundamental research in actuator materials and mechanisms as well as power storage components, both of which are necessary to create the strength, dexterity, and independence of functional microrobotics platforms.

That term “SWaP” translates into “size, weight, and power,” which are just some of the constraints that very small robots operate under. Power is probably the biggest one—tiny robots that aren’t tethered either run out of power within just a minute or two, or rely on some kind of nifty and exotic source, like lasers or magnets. There’s also control to consider, with truly tiny robots almost always using off-board processors. These sorts of things substantially limit the real-world usefulness of microrobots, which is why DARPA is tackling them directly with SHRIMP.

One of our favorite things about DARPA programs like these is their competitive nature, and SHRIMP is no exception. Both components and integrated robots will compete in “a series of Olympic-themed competitions [for] multi-functional mm-to-cm scale robotic platforms,” performing tasks “associated with maneuverability, dexterity, [and] manipulation.” DARPA will be splitting the competition into two parts: one for actuators and power sources, and the other for complete robots. 

Here are the tentative events for the actuator and power source competition; DARPA expects that teams will develop systems that weigh less than one gram and fit into one cubic centimeter.

High Jump: The microrobotic actuator-power system must propel itself vertically from a stationary starting position, with distance measured only in the vertical direction and survivability as the judging criteria. Expected result: >5cm.

Long Jump: The microrobotic actuator-power system must propel itself horizontally from a stationary starting position, with the distance measured only in the horizontal direction and survivability as the judging criteria. Expected result: >5cm

Weightlifting: The microrobotic actuator-power system must lift a mass, with progressively larger masses until the actuator system fails to lift the weight. Expected result: >10g. 

Shotput: The microrobotic actuator-power system must propel a mass horizontally, with the distance measured only in the horizontal direction as the judging criteria. Both 1-gram and 5-gram masses must be attempted. Expected result: >10cm @ 1g, >5cm @ 2g.

Tug of War: The microrobotic actuator-power system will be connected to a load cell to measure the blocking force of the actuator mechanism. Expected result: > 25mN.

Teams competing with entire robots will have a separate set of events, and DARPA is looking for a lot of capability in a very, very small package—in a volume of less than one cubic centimeter and a weight of less than one gram, DARPA wants to see “a micro power source, power converters, actuation mechanism and mechanical transmission and structural elements, computational control, sensors for stability and control, and any necessary sensors and actuators required to improve the maneuverability and dexterity of the platforms.” The robots should be able to move for 3 minutes, with a cost of transport of less than 50. Teams are allowed to develop different robots for different events, but DARPA is hoping that the winning design will be able to compete in at least four events.

Rock Piling: For each attempt, the microrobot must travel to, lift, and stack weights (varying from 0.5 to 2.0 g) in a minimum of two layers without human interaction. Expected result: 2g, 2 layers. 

Steeplechase: Competing teams will be given precise locations and types of obstacles (e.g. hurdle, gap, step, etc.) relative to the starting location. For each attempt, the microrobot must traverse the course without human interaction or recharge between each obstacle. The number of cleared obstacles and total distance will be used as the judging criteria. Expected result: 2 obstacles, 5m.

Biathlon: Competing teams will be given the choice between three beacon types (temperature, light, or sound) or they may choose to use all 3 types of beacons. For each attempt, the microrobot must traverse to a series of beacon waypoints to create an open circuit without human interaction or recharge between each waypoint. Expected result: 2 beacons, 5m.

Vertical Ascent: Microrobots will traverse up two surfaces, one with a shallow incline (10º) and the other with a sharp incline (80º). The total vertical distance traveled will be the judging criteria. Expected result: 10m at 10°, 1m at 80°.

DARPA has US $32 million of funding to spread around across multiple projects for SHRIMP. Abstracts are due August 10, proposals are due September 26, and the competition could happen as early as March of next year.

[ DARPA ]

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