Moving quickly to get its Robotics Challenge disaster-response competition off the ground, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) plans to award Boston Dynamics a contract to supply eight humanoid robots for use by competing teams.

Darpa is offering a $2 million prize for designing a robot capable of supervised autonomous response to a simulated disaster. The goal of the challenge is to improve the ability of robots to operate in the chaotic conditions following a disaster and make use of vehicles and tools available in cities to clear rubble or make repairs.

“This challenge is going to test supervised autonomy in perception and decision-making, mounted and dismounted mobility, dexterity, strength and endurance in an environment designed for humans but degraded due to a disaster,” says Gill Pratt, Darpa program manager.

To enable teams without hardware expertise to participate, Darpa plans to make robotic platforms available to the top software development teams as government-furnished equipment (GFE). The platform will comprise a torso, two legs, two arms with hands and a sensor head.

A leader in legged robots, Boston Dynamics is to build eight of the GFE platforms, which will be based on the Petman anthropomorphic robot developed for the U.S. Army to test chemical protection clothing and the improved Atlas robot developed under Darpa’s Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) program.

To enable the widest possible participation in the challenge, Darpa also plans to award the Open Source Robotics Foundation a contract to prove a freely accessible robot simulation software system. This will include validated models of robots and field environments to enable simulated testing.

Darpa expects the availability of an affordable virtual test environment, to be based on the foundation’s Gazebo open-source simulation software, to lower the barrier to entry into the robotics market and act as a catalyst for new hardware and software designs.

The 18-month Robotics Challenge will involve a series of tasks corresponding to a disaster-response scenario, in which the robot will be required to drive a utility vehicle to the disaster site, get out, cross rubble, remove debris blocking a doorway, enter a building, climb a ladder, traverse a walkway, break through a concrete panel, locate and close a valve near a leaking pipe, and replace a cooling pump.

Darpa says competitors can enter in one of four ways. The agency expects to fund up to five teams proposing their own hardware and software and up to 12 developing control software only; plus up to 100 teams that will develop software at their own expense using cloud-computing resources provided by Darpa and any teams that develop a complete system on their own money, but pass initial qualification testing.

The 15-month first phase will include a virtual disaster-response challenge using simulated robots at the nine-month mark, which will narrow the number of software-only teams to six or fewer.

Phase 1 will culminate in a disaster response challenge using real robots in an authentic environment. Up to eight of the highest performing teams, plus any self-funded systems, will then move forward into the 12-month second phase.

That phase is planned to culminate at the end of 2014 in a second physical disaster-response competition. Darpa is offering the winning team a prize of $2 million.

Darpa anticipates awards totaling $34 million over the course of the challenge, including up to $3 million for each team proposing both hardware and software, up to $1.13 million for those developing software only, and another $1 million for funded teams making it into Phase 2.