For most organisations, business continuity issues have more to do with breakdowns in everyday processes than with incidents in a nuclear reactor. However, events like the most recent catastrophe in Japan have catalysed discussions on the potential for using robots for recovery and continuity – discussions that could progressively include even ‘run of the mill’ incidents. The high radioactivity levels of the Fukushima reactor systems prevented human beings from being able to shut them off early enough to minimise damage. Correctly designed robots on the other hand might have been able to do this: however, while the use of robots in industrial applications and in space exploration is well-known, emergency situations require a different approach to robot programming.
The need to be able to issue simple, natural commands according to the need at hand, and the need for robots to respond to these commands are defining characteristics of these critical situations. Current pre-defined, pre-programmed robot activities do not allow for this. In tape archives for instance, robots organise tape cartridge picking, mounting, and storing, but do not step outside the narrow limits of an orderly process. Such robots are not designed to respond to abnormal situations such as fire or flooding. Recovery robots on the other hand would be expected to handle such events and understand spontaneous commands such as ‘shut the door’ or ‘go down the stairs’.
It is to encourage companies to produce solutions to this kind of emergency requirement that the DARPA Robotics Challenge has been created. Contestants in this competition submit robotics prototypes capable of working in environments designed for human beings, using human tools, and under the instructions of human civilians who have no specific training in handling robots or other similarly sophisticated technologies. After its start last December, the DRC recently concluded an initial competitive round at the end of June 2013. The contestants worked a virtual robotics environment; real, ‘human-friendly’ robots are the objective for later iterations of the Challenge.