US robotics teams gear up for DARPA mine challenge

Engineers from across the US are putting the finishing touches to the robots that will take on underground rescue missions in DARPA’s latest competition.

The DARPA Subterranean (SubT) Challenge will see 11 teams using robotic systems to map, navigate and search a variety of complex underground environments, including man-made tunnels, urban underground structures and a natural cave system. The first event, taking place from August 15-22, is the Tunnel Circuit that will simulate a disaster scenario in a research mine near Pittsburgh. Teams will be scored on the ability to map the mine and identify objects throughout the area, including simulated human survivors.

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(Credit: CMU)

Explorer, a collaboration between Carnegie Mellon University and Oregon State University, is one of the teams competing. Comprised of around 30 faculty, staff members and students, the team will be using a pair of ground robots and a pair of drones to take on the missions. Explorer has been testing its robots ahead of the SubT Challenge at the Tour-Ed Mine in Pennsylvania.

“This is a task that requires robot autonomy, perception, networking, and mobility for us to be successful,” said team co-leader Sebastian Scherer, from Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute.

“Underground operations pose many unique challenges for robots, but we’ve benefited from the Robotics Institute’s depth of experience in developing robots that can work in enclosed spaces and dark, dank environments.”

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(Credit: CMU)

One of the most significant challenges for the teams will be maintaining communications in the underground environments, with radio signals blocked by the deep layers of rock. Explorer’s solution is for its ground robots to periodically drop Wi-Fi nodes as they venture into the depths of the mine. However, the number of nodes each robot can carry is limited, so they must be able to operate autonomously beyond the Wi-Fi network and then relay data back once they come back within range. The drones will be used when the ground robots encounter obstructions that they can’t overcome, flying ahead to continue the mission.

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(Credit: CMU)

The Tunnel Circuit is one of three events leading up to the overall final of the DARPA SubT Challenge. An Urban Circuit where robots will explore complex underground facilities will take place in February 2020, with a Cave Circuit event running in August 2020. A grand final in August 2021 will incorporate all three environments and will determine the winner of the competition’s $2m grand prize.

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