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Flexible RoboSimian prepares for a robot showdown in disaster response contest

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Disaster response is one of the most promising fields of robotics, as engineers look for ways that the most dangerous cleanup work could be left to machines. At Stanford University and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of these projects is bearing fruit. RoboSimian is designed to compete in DARPA's Robotics Challenge, which will pit six teams against each other in challenges that will simulate a disaster like the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown — the robots will need to be able to navigate rough terrain, use ordinary human tools like screwdrivers, and be possible to operate with little advanced training. As the December 2013 trials get nearer, JPL has released a video showing off just what RoboSimian can do.

Designed with multi-segment legs and dexterous three-fingered claws, RoboSimian can swing, bend, and twist with its pipe-like limbs. In the video, it's shown grasping objects and lifting itself on a bar — neither of which are earth-shattering feats on their own. But ultimately, it's supposed to be able to climb ladders and otherwise move around in difficult environments, supervised by an operator but conducting individual movements on its own. Its design is unique, but the basic concept is similar to that of other competitors, all of which are building bipedal machines that range between humanoid and chimp-like.

If RoboSimian performs well, JPL and Stanford will get enough funding to proceed to the final challenge, held in December 2014 with a $2 million prize. As it and other teams try out their hardware, another set of teams will compete in the Virtual Robotics Challenge, using DARPA's nearly 300-pound Atlas robot to test custom software.