An Israeli team led by researchers from Ben-Gurion University was invited this week to participate in a US-sponsored project to develop control software for the next generation of “rescue” robots, designed to deal with disasters.

Robots can go places where man dare not, into disaster zones, both natural and man-made. Governments, universities, and corporations around the world are putting significant resources in developing robots to deal with the aftermath of floods, mining collapses, oil spills, nuclear accidents, and other industrial and natural disasters.

The Robotics Challenge program is sponsored by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), an agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development of new technologies for use by the military. The Israeli team, Robil, is one of eleven that will develop software for the GFE Platform being developed by Boston Dynamics, Inc., based on its Atlas humanoid robot platform and modified to meet the needs of the DARPA Robotics Challenge. The team, the only non-American group invited to participate, was awarded $375,000 to develop the software over the next nine months.

The program was initiated in the wake of some of those modern disasters — including the nuclear accident at Japan’s Fukushima power plant, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the Chilean Copiapó mine collapse. In all those instances, robots were able to accomplish what humans could not, entering danger zones to render assistance. While the robots in those instances acted well, they could have done so much more, said DARPA — and with the help of the Israeli group and 10 other teams, the software to improve and enhance robot performance will soon be available, the US organization said.

“Robil’s team is an ad-hoc consortium led by BGU composed of the leaders of the Israeli robotics industry, including IAI and Cogniteam, and academia, including Ben Gurion Univesity, Bar-Ilan University, and the Technion. It includes 20 key personnel and over 40 graduate students and engineers,” says Robil team leader Prof. Hugo Guterman of BGU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Among the things DARPA wants robots to be able to do are driving utility vehicles at disaster sites, removing debris that prevents rescue workers from entering a disaster zone, opening doors, climbing ladders, opening or closing valves, and even breaking through a concrete wall.

“The DARPA Robotics Challenge program,” according to the organization, “will help directly meet these needs by developing robotic technology for disaster response operations. This technology will improve the performance of robots that operate in the rough terrain and austere conditions characteristic of disasters, and use vehicles and tools commonly available in populated areas. This technology will also work in ways easily understood by subject matter experts untrained in the operation of robots, and be governed by intuitive controls that require little training.”