DARPA, the Pentagon's techno-happy think tank, has announced a contest to spur the development of robots that could lend a helping hand during an emergency. The competition involves several tracks — including one to program the software for a pre-existing humanoid bot, and one to create a robot that can take on any form. The winners of the contest will take home a $2 million prize.

The humanoid robot will be supplied by Boston Dynamics (see the video above) — the same research wing that brought us Big Dog and Cheetah. The competitors are expected to program the robot so that it can do such things as drive vehicles, climb over debris, operate power tools, and control machines and valves.

Pentagon offers $2 million to the creator of the best autonomous rescue robotS

Extra points will be awarded to those robots who can perform as autonomously as possible — an attribute that would be of considerable benefit during a crisis. For example, during the Fukushima disaster last year, operators had a difficult time communication with and controlling their robots, on account of the thick walls. A robot that could act on its own would clearly be an important asset.

For the other contest tracks, developers will be asked to create rescue bots that can perform the same set of tasks. But unlike the humanoid portion of the contest, their robots can take on any shape and size. According to the New York Times, for example, JPL is working on a robot that has three legs and one arm.

Two other contests will take place by programming virtual robots in a computer simulation, which should allow competitors to compete from around the world.

Source: NYT; inset image via Boston Dynamics.