NASA's Ape-like RoboSimian Set for DARPA Robot Challenge

NASA's ape-like RoboSimian (left) and new Surrogate robot were developed by engineers at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. RoboSimian will compete in the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge in June.
NASA's ape-like RoboSimian (left) and new Surrogate robot were developed by engineers at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. RoboSimian will compete in the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge in June. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A NASA team is putting the finishing tweaks on its amazing, and somewhat creepy, climbing robot RoboSimian, a four-limbed automaton built to compete in a U.S. military robotics challenge in 2015.

RoboSimian will compete with other robots in the DARPA Robotics Challenge, a contest that tests robots in disaster response scenarios to see how they weather situations that could be ultra-dangerous for humans. The contest will occur in June. 

It was a close choice between RoboSimian, which NASA engineers have described as an "ape-like" robot, and a more human-like robotic companion constructed this year, called Surrogate, but team members decided to go with the robot that had already been tested for trials in the challenge. [DARPA's Robotics Challenge in Photos]

"It comes down to the fact that Surrogate is a better manipulation platform and faster on benign surfaces, but RoboSimian is an all-around solution, and we expect that the all-around solution is going to be more competitive in this case," said Brett Kennedy, principal investigator for the robots at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement. JPL is managed by Caltech for NASA.

RoboSimian ambles about on four limbs and can easily climb or navigate difficult terrain. It is also equipped with up to seven sets of camera eyes on its front, stomach and sides. Surrogate, which was created out of RoboSimian's spare parts, has a more flexible spine that stands upright, allowing it to manipulate objects. But Surrogate has only two eyes and requires a track to move around, which means it would have trouble climbing a flight of stairs.

In the competition, RoboSimian's tasks will include driving and leaving a vehicle, moving over debris in a doorway, cutting into a wall, opening a valve and also navigating a field with debris in it, as well as a surprise task.

It's part of JPL's desire to create robots up to performing in dangerous environments, such as inside a nuclear plant or perhaps, one day, out in space or on another world.

Although RoboSimian was already qualified for the challenge, it was only after six months of testing this year with the robot and Surrogate that JPL decided to go with RoboSimian for the competition. The finals will be held in Pomona, California in June 2015.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: