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DARPA’s next robotics competition is an obstacle course in an abandoned mine

As the branch of the United States Department of Defense dedicated to developing new emerging technologies for use by the military, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency can be prone to secrecy at times. On Thursday, August 15, DARPA is kicking off its next big challenge — and, in this case, when we say that it involves keeping participants in the dark, it’s meant literally. Like, underground darkness.

Called the DARPA Subterranean Challenge, the competition, which runs August 15-22, aims to put a variety of high-tech solutions through their paces in a simulated disaster scenario in a defunct mine system in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It will test 11 international robotics teams, which have been working to create robotics systems that are able to navigate effectively underground, whether in human-made tunnels or natural cave networks. These are situations in which it might not be safe or desirable to deploy humans as problem solvers.

Robot in the competition will include walking robots like the four-legged ANYmal canine-inspired robot Digital Trends has reported on previously to flying robots. There will also be investigations involving the use of systems such as lidar, the bounced-laser technology that helps autonomous cars to “see,” to map out underground locations.

Entrants in the contest include the likes of CERBERUS (that’s an acronym for CollaborativE walking & flying RoBots for autonomous ExploRation in Underground Settings, obviously) and CoSTAR (Collaborative SubTerranean Autonomous Resilient robots). This is truly a global effort, with many countries — and unique approaches — involved. Teams involved in the contest are scored on whether they can map the mine area correctly and identify objects, which include simulated human survivors.

The Tunnel Circuit is the first of three events which will culminate in a final winner being crowned in August 2021, and taking home $2 million of prize money for their efforts. Other events, taking place in February and August 2020, will include an Urban Circuit and a Cave Circuit. The 2021 finale will incorporate all three different environments for the biggest challenge of all.

It might sound like a whole lot of fun, but it’s serious stuff. Not only is there a big prize involved and the opportunity to push technology forward in an exciting way, but robots such as this could one day play a major role in saving lives. With those kinds of stakes, the Subterranean Challenge may just be DARPA’s most important challenge event yet.

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