Gill Pratt might be called the military’s top mind in robotics. As the program manager for the DARPA Robotics Challenge, or DRC, Pratt managed an international competition that brought 24 teams to a simulated disaster zone in California, complete with rubble and disrupted communications, to explore how humans and robots could work together in emergencies like the Fukushima Diachii nuclear meltdown.
Pratt, who is stepping down at the end of August, sat down with Defense One to discuss the Robotics Challenge, the future of human-robot interaction, and how to stop a robot uprising (he’s not losing sleep over it). Below is that exchange, edited for clarity.
Defense One: Leading a competition to build emergency robots has surely taught you a lot about how these machines work and what happens when they don’t. What did you learn?
Gill Pratt: The No. 1 issue in emergencies is communication and coordination. Radio communications in a typical disaster is just awful. First, the cell network is overloaded because everyone is trying to talk and get in touch with each other. Second, the infrastructure has been degraded. Third, Sometimes the physical nature of the place where the disaster occurred can be very bad for wireless comms. In Fukushima, there was shielding inside the reactor buildings – zinc plates – and rebar to keep radiation from getting out. The shielding prevented wireless signals from getting out, also.
Communications, Command, and Control is the hard part in an emergency where you’ve got hundreds of people trying to help. In the future, if the emergency is very bad and the environment…