By Luke Dormehl September 8, 2019 1:00AM PST
You wake up underground. You’re dehydrated, your head’s throbbing, and there’s a deep gash on your forehead that’s bleeding heavily. Maybe you’re stuck in a cave system, trapped in a narrow tunnel, arms by your side. Perhaps you’re wedged in a storm drain that’s slowly filling up with water. Or possibly it’s a mine shaft where the power has gone out, plunging you into terrifying pitch blackness. Then you hear something. It’s only faint, but you know what it means: Help is on the way. Only it’s not from a human rescue team. From the rumbling sounds in the distance, it seems that the search-and-rescue team is sending in the robots. Immediately your sense of relief gives way to a feeling of trepidation. With time running out, and maybe only one chance to get this right, you pray that the robot they’ve picked is up to the job.
This nightmare of a scenario is one that, hopefully, will never befall you. But it’s one that DARPA, the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is desperately trying to figure out an answer to. And they’ve got $2 million earmarked for whoever can help them.
To work out just what the perfect underground rescue robot should look like, DARPA has set up a competition, the latest in its series of Grand Challenges. Called the Subterranean (or “SubT”) Challenge, this contest — which runs through 2021 — aims to uncover the best the robotics world has to offer in the way of rescue bots.
The competition is open to everyone from established robotics researchers to what DARPA Project Manager Dr. Timothy Chung refers to as self-funded “tinkerers” from around the world.
All you need to be in with a shot of scooping up the seven-figure prize is to have created a robot that’s able to map, navigate, and search a variety of complex underground environments during time-sensitive combat operations or disaster response scenarios.
Beyond that, there are no fixed guidelines about what these robots should look like.
The call for entrants has resulted in a massive groundswell of interest and entries.
These range from walking quadruped robots like the four-legged ANYmal robot Digital Trends has covered at length to flying robots which use lidar, the bounced laser technology that helps self-driving cars “see.”
Recently, the creations of 11 of the top international robotics teams went underground to be put to the test in the most challenging of environments.