Disaster recovery robots are becoming the new governmental must-have, with firms like Boston Dynamics developing bots that can inspect unstable terrain, work in toxic environments and generally go where humans can't.
Not content to let private firms reap all the glory, the US government is getting in on the action through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which develops new technologies for the military.
In the past these technologies have included human exoskeletons, jetpacks and various smart missiles. Going a few steps down on the size scale, though, DARPA's new project is called SHRIMP: SHort-Range Independent Microrobotic Platforms.
Aiming to spur development of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) - another area in which the Agency had a founding role - the robots are said to be small enough to make their way through tiny spaces, like the inside of a drainpipe or garden hose.
Ronald Polcawich, a programme manager in the Microsystems Technology Office (MTO), said: "Whether in a natural disaster scenario, a search and rescue mission, a hazardous environment or other critical relief situation, robots have the potential to provide much needed aide and support.
"However, there are a number of environments that are inaccessible for larger robotic platforms. Smaller robotics systems could provide significant aid, but shrinking down these platforms requires significant advancement of the underlying technology."
Power is the most significant challenge with such small robots, with untethered models commonly running out of power after only a minute or two. Overcoming ‘SWaP' (size, weight and power) constraints is the goal behind SHRIMP.
DARPA has $32 million to invest in grant funding, and teams must build components or entire robots that can compete in a series of Olympic-style tests. For actuators and power sources these include the high jump, long jump, weightlifting and shotput (expected result: >10cm for a 1g load).
Teams that develop full robots will have their own events, including the steeplechase and biathlon.
Proposals are due by the 26th September, and the contests could take place in Q1 next year.
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