DARPA announced that their robotics challenge this year will be for disaster-response robots:
Natural and man-made disasters have caused suffering for people around the world, in past ages, today, and surely tomorrow. The devastation of disasters such as Fukushima, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the Chilean Copiapó mine collapse all serve to highlight our fragility in the presence of unforeseen events. Often, subject matter experts are available with the knowledge to prevent further damage, yet are unable to get close enough to complete their mission – be it from nuclear contamination, intense pressure, structural instability, or many other threats to human safety. Our best robotic tools are helping, but they are not yet robust enough to function in all environments and perform the basic tasks needed to mitigate a crisis situation. Even in degraded post-disaster situations, the environment is scaled to the human world, requiring navigation of human obstacles such as doors and stairs, manipulation of human objects such as vehicles and power tools, and recognition of common human objects such as levers and valves.
Registration information is available here.
Last August, IEEE Spectrum published a blog from a robot operator in the Fukushima disaster. It is an interesting diary for robot enthusiasts and casual readers alike.