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Autonomous robots to battle underground could one day explore alien worlds

Autonomous robots that will battle it out in a former Kentucky mine this week for the chance to win $2 million could possibly explore the surfaces of alien worlds in future space missions.

The contest, which will run from September 21 to 24, marks the final stage of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Subterranean (SubT) Challenge, which began three years ago.

Teams from over 30 institutions will bring dozens of robots to the former limestone mine and pit them against each other in a series of complex underground scenarios.

The winning team will not just potentially get to see their project involved in the future of space exploration, but will also be awarded $2 million, with a further $1.5 million available for the runners-up.

The robots competing in the SubT Challenge won’t just potentially be given off-world missions, however. The challenge is devised in such a way that the robots demonstrate autonomous skills that will prove useful for first responders in underground environments like tunnels, caves, and pits, where Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and direct communications are unavailable.

Amongst the groups that will be participating in the SubT challenge is the Collaborative SubTerranean Autonomous Robots (CoSTAR) team from NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Team CoStar’s Rollocopter which is designed to tackle underground terrains. The autonomous device will likely compete in the final stage of the SubT challenge.
JPL/Caltech/NASA

The 60 members of the CoStar crew, including engineers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), Sweden’s Lulea University of Technology, will put a collection of several very different robots up to the challenge in SubT’s final stage.

Amongst the autonomous robots that CoStar could deploy in the challenge are wheeled and tracked robots that cover ground more rapidly when there are few obstacles and rough terrain, and the flying Rollocopter which trundles along on two wheels but can take to the air when it encounters an obstacle.

Another CoStar robot that could be deployed in the final is NeBula-SPOT, a four-legged design inspired by dogs. The robot, built by Boston Dynamics, can navigate extreme environments without the need for access to GPS. Also, as it is fully autonomous it has no need for human guidance.

The canine-inspired robot could be used on future space missions to map underground caverns on the moon, or even on human space missions to explore terrain ahead of astronauts. The autonomous robot could also potentially highlight locations for shelters on longer missions.

CoStar’s plan to tackle the final stage of the SubT Challenge is to send robot scouts ahead to first explore the underground terrain. They will then use the information gathered to select the robots that are best equipped to navigate the challenge course.

“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,” Caltech professor and JPL research scientist Joel Burdick said in a NASA release. “I am excited to see how our very diverse robot team will perform.”

NeBula-Spot
The NeBula-Spot robot explores an underground cavern. Autonomous robots recently battled it out for Team CoSTAR to see which would explore other planets on future space missions.
JPL/Caltech/NASA

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