Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor
Washington, DC, United States (4E) – The U.S. Army is preparing to fight future battles underground, and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) over the weekend announced a challenge to push the limits of robotic design and control in underground environments.
The Subterranean Challenge or SubT Challenge aims to develop innovative technologies that will augment operations underground, such as those in human-made tunnels like an urban sewer system. The SubT Challenge will explore new approaches to rapidly map, navigate, search, and exploit complex underground environments, including human-made tunnel systems, urban underground, and natural cave networks.
Dark and deep underground environments significant challenge situational awareness among soldiers. In active combat operations, soldiers face increased technical challenges. These include difficult terrain, unstable structures, degraded environmental conditions, severe communication constraints, and expansive areas of operation.
The teams chosen for the challenge come from Carnegie Mellon University; CSIRO, the Australian government research lab; iRobo; Endeavor Robotics; Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory; the University of Colorado; the University of Nevada and the University of Pennsylvania.
Two more teams, Michigan Technological University and Scientific Systems, will take part in a separate virtual competition held in an environment with realistic, if simplified, physics.
The SubT Challenge will require these teams to have robots maneuver objects through three different environments: a series of caves, a bunker-like “urban environment,” and a labyrinth of confined tunnels.
The robots will be remote-controlled and will have some sophisticated autonomous skills. They will need to rapidly map and explore unfamiliar environments even when communications are spotty and conditions are challenging for sensors. Teams will be allowed to use as many different types of robot as they like.
DARPA wants advances in new robot forms (such a non-human form like a snake or insect); advanced autonomy with tele-operation and superior sensor fusion for reliable, high-speed mapping in dirty and muddy environments.
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