Won't You (Cheaply) Help DARPA Gear Up for the Coming Robopocalypse?

robot cash

Back in July the government identified robots as one of the R&D priorities for the 2012 budget (about a decade behind the rest of us). Now there's a research funding round to aid small business robotic's efforts, to build robot gear DARPA can't manage.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy was behind July's thinking that "Robotics is an important technology because of its potential to advance national needs such as homeland security, defense, medicine, healthcare, space exploration," and a whole list of other purposes. The OSTP thinks it's also a tech at "a tipping point in terms of its usefulness and versatility," thanks to innovations in programming, hardware, and computer vision.

Now the White House has announced that five federal agencies have banded together to create a fund to spur "small business research." Companies can apply for cash to aid work on "robot-assisted rehabilitation, robotics for drug discovery, and robots that can disarm explosive devices." This last one is particularly revealing, given how much the U.S. armed forces are relying on robotics in the current expeditionary missions, and how much improvised explosive weapons are inflicted disaster in Afghanistan and Iraq (with a side-order of worries about similar terrorist threats at home).

DARPA, of course, sets out guidelines about the kind of robots its funds: They must have "novel actuators that exceed the safety and efficacy of human muscle," which is a no-brainer—why would anyone build a defense bot that is weaker than a person? The actuators must be safe, extremely powerful, and robust—also no-brainers. They must also have designs that "do not rely on exotic or expensive materials or processes" and have potential for "low-cost manufacturing."

And here's the truth behind all this, hinted at by BotJunkie's post on the news. Official government funding on robotics and general science and tech for decades, including billions of unaccountable "black project" cash, hasn't developed robotics swiftly enough to meet modern requirements. There's a ton of clever work in the bag, certainly, but it's either too expensive or too unreliable to quickly turn into workable robots that can help the U.S.'s war efforts as well as engineering tasks back home. So the government has opened the cash pool to small businesses, who may come up with novel ideas, are potentially more agile in turning ideas into workable products, and who lack the institutionalized corruption that seems to plague official big-budget defense funds.

We're also going to chide the OSTP for lack of balls in following through what could've been appealing trick: The fund is called "Robotics Technology Development and Deployment" not "Robotics Research, Development and Deployment" (which works since "technology" is implicit in "robotics"). Hence its official acronym is RTD2, rather than ....

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