This year, DARPA held the finals for its Robotics Competition, in which teams built humanoid robots designed to complete basic tasks like walking, driving, and opening doors. And with that, the competition concluded, and we were sad.
But this year, DARPA has announced a new initiative, called Robotics Fast Track, offering awards up to $150,000 for companies, groups, or individuals to build prototype robots. “It’s not a replacement for the DRC,” says program manager Mark Micire. “It’s a whole different idea.” One he hopes to get Makers involved with in a big way.
These aren’t just any robots, and they’re not supposed to be generalists. Award criteria emphasize revolutionary technology, as well as “rapid, cost-effective development of new robotics capabilities” and an “explicit emphasis on the research component.” DARPA is interested in robotics solutions for ground, air, sea (surface or subsurface), and space, but also in software. They needn’t necessarily be complete robots, either. Technology used in robotics, like AI and sensors, is applicable as well. Micire mentions the revolutionary aspect frequently — he’s not just looking to push the field forward, but to reevaluate, reinvent, and change the landscape and the focus of solutions in it.
That may seem grandiose, and out of the scope of many Makers, But if you have an idea that might tackle some problem in robotics in a truly unique way, Micire points out that an award this size could be the bump needed to go full-time or even start a company. It could be an alternative to Kickstarter.
Micire is courting Makers not just because he identifies as one, but because he believes we have something special to offer.
“There’s a kind of creative energy there that is kind of innovative and novel, and frankly, that community’s ability to look at a problem, and to basically look at it from a different angle than we might see out of some of our more traditional DOD performers, I think is unique,” he says. “I think that that community just has a very creative problem solving capability that I think is kind of revitalizing to a lot of the DOD missions that we have.”
While the proposals accepted so far favor universities and companies, that’s not intentional, says Micire. “The scale can actually be whatever that particular person wants it to be,” he says.
While DARPA retains Government Purpose Rights — that is, the right to use the tech however it wants — Makers retain intellectual property for any commercial applications. “We of course prefer — and this is just as much a personal preference as anything — for projects that are open source and do give back to the community,” says Micire. To help with that, DARPA has partnered with the Open Source Robotics Foundation and BIT Systems to vet and approve projects.
“Our job is to prove that this Maker community does have the technical prowess to contribute to the DOD in a very meaningful way,” says Micire.
Some more relevant details: There’s not a particular limit to the number of proposals they will fund; The entirety of the evaluation criteria is available on the RFT website; they’ll try to give feedback on rejected proposals, and you can submit more than once; it’s a contract, not a grant, and though you’ll be on the hook for deliverables, you’re technically doing a commercial project for a government contractor, not becoming a government contractor yourself; in an attempt to make DARPA more nimble, expected length of the projects is something like 6 to 8 months.