A recent competition held in Pittsburgh seemed like an episode of BattleBots or Robot Wars. Eleven teams built several robots each to navigate underground environments in a timed competition. But this wasn't a television competition: these teams are working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to find better ways to rapidly map, navigate and search underground environments sometimes seen in disaster response or combat operations.
Over the course of three rounds, the teams test robots and aerial drones — and even one mini blimp — in a tunnel system, an urban underground and a cave network. These underground subdomains can span miles with some having multiple levels.
Teams must attempt to remotely map the subdomain, identify artifacts — such as a fire extinguisher installed on the side of a cave wall — and report the number of artifacts in the underground environment. Several robots handle different tasks or terrain, but they must be able to communicate with each other and work together to manage obstacles with limited human input.
The tunnel challenge was completed last month in two Pittsburgh coal mines named the “experimental tunnel” and the “safety research tunnel.” The Subterranean, or “SubT,” Challenge runs through 2021.
Possible technology uses
Pushing technology to its limits with innovation and good-natured competition will have an impact on future disaster response and military operations. These challenges expand capabilities of remote exploration in areas too dangerous to send people. The information learned from these challenges will steer future technological development.