WASHINGTON – U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel got a firsthand look at a life-size robot Tuesday that resembles Hollywood’s Terminator, the latest experiment by the Pentagon’s high-tech researchers.
But unlike the cinematic version, the hulking Atlas robot is designed not as a warrior, but as a humanitarian machine that would rescue victims in the rubble of natural disasters, officials said.
The 187-cm Atlas is one of the entrants in a contest designed to produce a manlike lifesaving machine, the brainchild of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
The competition, which will require the robots to navigate rough terrain and enter buildings, was created in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
DARPA, the Pentagon’s research arm known for futuristic projects often evoking science fiction, showed off the Atlas robot to Hagel, but, except for LED lighting, the humanoid was apparently switched off in a static display.
Brad Tousley, head of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, told Hagel that Hollywood has created unrealistic expectations of what robots can do.
Building robots that can climb ladders, open doors and carry objects requires daunting feats of engineering and computer science, he said.
Scientists also showed Hagel the latest technology for prosthetics, including a mechanical hand that responds to brain impulses and a prosthetic arm controlled by foot movements.
A wounded veteran who once worked with Hagel in the 1980s demonstrated one of the devices, giving the Pentagon chief a thumbs up with his prosthetic left arm.
“It’s the first time in 45 years, since Vietnam, I’m able to use my left hand,” said Fred Downs, who lost his arm in a land mine explosion during the war.
He controlled the device using two accelerometers strapped to his feet, manipulating the elbow, wrist and fingers.
“This is transformational,” Hagel said. “We’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Dr. Justin Sanchez, a program manager at DARPA who works with prosthetics and brain-related technology, showed Hagel a video of a patient whose brain had been implanted with a sensor, allowing her to control a mechanical arm with her thoughts.
Scientists then displayed a shiny black mechanical hand and arm that responds to brain impulses, and said sensors would be attached to allow the fingers to send sensations back to the brain. The tactile feedback system should be operational within a few months, officials said.