NASA Robots Compete in DARPA's Epic Subterranean Challenge Finals

Three years ago, in the misty Before Times of 2018, DARPA launched its Subterranean (SubT) challenge. The big goal of the SubT Challenge is to empower first responders or search-and-rescue teams in underground environments, where GPS and most communications signals can’t penetrate. Thirty teams ended up participating in the contest, and eight have made it to the last stage, including a 60-member contingent from NASA called Team CoSTAR. Now, the final contenders for the $2M grand prize have converged on a former limestone mine in Kentucky, to face the ultimate test of their robots’ skills.

Joel Burdick, a JPL research scientist and Caltech professor who leads the Caltech campus section of Team CoSTAR, said:

Our participation in this exciting effort helps further one of the main goals of Caltech’s Center for Autonomous Systems & Technologies (CAST): developing robots that can help find and rescue humans in future disasters…The final contest will be particularly challenging, since we must use wheeled, legged, and flying robots to access all of the complex spaces that DARPA will build into the competition. I am excited to see how our very diverse robot team will perform.

Designed to be a mammoth gauntlet of hazards, the boss level of the SubT Challenge is a warren of tunnels, structures, and natural caves, sprawling through the four-million-square-foot Louisville Mega Caverns. It’s a search and rescue wargame, on both physical and virtual fronts.

The robots will produce a live 3D map as they move through the area, searching for 20 key objects that indicate the presence of nearby humans — things like backpacks, cell phones, and hidden mannequins. They must navigate the physical terrain as well as specific environmental hazards, such as a CO2 emitter that simulates a gas leak in an urban setting, or a helmet in an underground location that could indicate a nearby human presence.

To simulate conditions where radio signals can’t penetrate, there are significant restrictions on how much the robots’ operators can help them while the event is in progress. The team of robots must operate autonomously, for the most part, with no or limited radio contact with a single human supervisor, and the mission must be completed within one hour. The more objects they can find, reach, and identify, the more points earned.

CoSTAR is fielding a “robot ecosystem” with multiple rescue robots in the lineup. One standout is the Rollocopter, a hybrid aerial-terrestrial searchbot with wheels and quadrotors that can just decide not to engage with ground obstacles, and fly over them instead. Another is NeBula-Spot, which combines JPL’s “autonomy smarts” and another crazy Boston Dynamics robot doggo. Subterranean Spot is a rover (pun definitely intended) that can access hard-to-reach locations and navigate difficult terrain.

The robots can’t necessarily phone home, but they can talk to one another. A robot that encounters terrain it can’t navigate can tag in another robot it knows can handle the obstacle, which will continue the search from there. “These courses are very, very challenging, and most of the difficulty lies in communicating with the robots after they’ve gone out of range,” said CoSTAR’s team lead Ali Agha of JPL. “That’s critical for NASA: We want to send robots into caves on the Moon or Mars, where they have to explore on their own.”

The competition runs all this week, and if you’d like to watch highlights from the events in progress, they’re being broadcast at:

The final ranking is expected to be announced on Friday, September 24th, so stay tuned to find out the winners!

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