On July 20, 1969, U.S. astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins made history as they participated in the first lunar module landing. Millions of people watched from home as Armstrong became the first person to step on the moon. This great leap was accomplished before home computers or smart phones. State-of-the-art in the 1960s was a solid-state calculator. 

This summer, millions of people are invited to watch another history-making event—this time involving robots.

From June 5-6, 2015, the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Finals will demonstrate teams of humans and robots taking the first small steps toward the next great leap in robotics.

Scientists and engineers believe robotics could be the key to solving many of our most difficult problems, from deep space and deep sea exploration, to delicate surgery and mitigating natural disasters. Robotics also has potential to help us in our everyday lives, from driverless cars and pilotless planes to lending helping hands at home and at work.

So what will push us even further toward that next great leap in robotics? Researchers at Lockheed Martin believe there are four driving factors.  


Mastering the 4 "Ps" - Perception, Processing, Power and Planning

Robots can help humans have action at a distance, whether it’s in another building or in deep space. In order to do that, they need mastery of the “4 Ps”: Perception, Processing, Power and Planning.

Robots must be able to perceive their environment and have advanced planning capabilities that allow them to navigate within and manipulate their surroundings.

“Most people don’t realize how difficult it is for a human to command a robot to complete a simple task,” explained Dave Kotfis, a Lockheed Martin engineer who is researching autonomous system software. “In order to be tasked like a human, the robot needs to understand language sufficiently to translate language into its goals and constraints.”  

To work autonomously or semi-autonomously, robots also need a reliable source of energy and incredible processing capability. Advances in cloud computing, which increases available processing power and allows robots to share experiences with each other, could be a key to creating robots that can learn and work collaboratively.

Learn more about the Four Technologies Required for Robots of the Future.


Thinking Beyond Today's Robotics Tasks

Today people think about robots doing the work that humans find dull, dirty or dangerous: Factory work, household chores, entering hazardous environments. As technology advances, so does a robot’s to-do list!

And while it’s exciting to imagine robots helping humans in those scenarios, we believe that robots have potential to enable missions we barely dream of outside the world of science fiction. For many of us, those missions involve outer space.

“Traveling in space is a perilous endeavor,” said Lockheed Martin senior research scientist Steve Jolly. “Designing a robot that needs to autonomously prepare itself for a landing onto a planet without human intervention is challenging enough. Scientists aren’t always sure if the surface is going to present mission ending hazards, so that makes things more complicated.”

Jolly points to the InSight program, a Lockheed Martin spacecraft that launches in 2016 to investigate the core, mantle and crust of Mars, as an example.

“We have to decide: Do we want to make the robot so smart it can see and avoid rocks? Or do we make it impervious to rocks? Right now we have to balance hazard avoidance and hazard tolerance because of our low mass limitations due to conventional propulsion,” Jolly said.

What needs to happen to make a smart and strong robot a reality in deep space?

“Nuclear propulsion, fission or fusion, will change the balance of power,” Jolly said. “Mass dominates everything.” 


Building Trust in Technology

Transitioning technology from the laboratory to the real world is complicated. We must actively create opportunities to build trust in robotic technologies.

University of Pennsylvania Professor of Computer and Information Science Kostas Daniilidis, who is participating in the DARPA Robotics Challenge as a member of Team TROOPER, sees how both companies and universities can build trust in robotics through collaboration.

“Foundational research in university laboratories has gone beyond the traditional publications of papers,” said Daniilidis. “Universities are now building experimental facilities to characterize the precision of execution in robotic operations as well as in provide large data sets that can measure the reliability of perception systems."

Daniilidis cites the DARPA Robotics Challenge as an opportunity to share experimental robotics research with the world.

As with any new technology, these robotic systems must prove that they can perform reliably, predictably, and repeatedly—which means the learning doesn’t stop once the DRC Finals end.


Inspiring the Future Workforce

Robotics works across many different areas of engineering. It requires input from electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, computer scientists and material scientists. Robotics often draws inspiration from biology, as well. It’s no coincidence that you see robots modeled after cats, dogs, fish and humans.

That’s why Lockheed Martin is creating partnerships with organizations like National Geographic to inspire future engineers and scientists.

From the “Engineers in the Classroom” program that includes videos, lesson plans and activities, to the new Robots 3D movie and associated educational activities, Lockheed Martin and National Geographic are working together to get young people excited about STEM education.

"National Geographic is committed to raising young explorers who are curious about the world and ready to solve tomorrow's problems," said National Geographic Chief Education Officer Melina Bellows. "We're thrilled to be working with Lockheed Martin to inspire tomorrow's conservationists, scientists and engineers through films, Engineers in the Classroom and hands-on activities."

Lockheed Martin is also investing in events like the USA Science and Engineering Festival, as well as local 4-H and FIRST robotics programs.

With robotics, opportunity is endless—and we need the talent and imagination to pursue it.