Teams from around the world have gathered in Satsop for the DARPA Subterranean Challenge (SubT), a high-tech competition with prize money at stake and prestige for the teams that best develop abilities for the military to operate below ground.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has a prize pool of millions of dollars for the teams that can best navigate underground courses and find specific artifacts in an attempt to advance the technology used in search and rescue missions.
The technology would protect people from having to enter dangerous underground locations during a disaster.
National Defense Magazine’s website describes the government’s motivations for developing the technology this way: “The subterranean operating environment is multifaceted. For example, militant groups like the Islamic State and Hamas have built extensive networks of underground passageways to move fighters and protect themselves from aerial attack. Drug cartels are using tunnels to smuggle contraband into the United States from Mexico. A former Thai navy SEAL died last year while trying to deliver oxygen tanks to kids trapped inside a cave.
“Meanwhile, top defense officials believe the U.S. military will have to do battle in megacities and other urban areas that have complex underground facilities such as subway systems.”
The teams are mainly partnerships between universities and technology companies. Countries represented include the Czech Republic, Switzerland, England, South Korea, Sweden, Australia, Canada and Taiwan in addition to the United States. The Coordinated Robotics team is comprised of people from Coordinated Robotics, California State University Channel Islands and Sequoia Middle School in Newbury Park, California.
Universities represented include Cal-Berkeley, Nevada-Reno, Oxford, MIT and Carnegie-Mellon.
DARPA, a branch of the federal Department of Defense, held similar contests that led to the self-driving vehicles being commercially tested on roads today.
The DARPA website states its mission is “to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security. … The ultimate results have included not only game-changing military capabilities such as precision weapons and stealth technology, but also such icons of modern civilian society such as the Internet, automated voice recognition and language translation, and Global Positioning System receivers small enough to embed in myriad consumer devices.”
Contests, like SubT, have both civilian and military value. In natural disasters and on the battlefield, having robots that could explore underground areas identifying victims and assessing safety could prove invaluable.
There are 10 teams competing with an average of about 16 people per team. Many teams are multinational, and 10 countries are represented. There also are more than 80 workers in the area for the competition.
The competition began Tuesday, Feb. 18, and runs through Thursday, Feb. 27. Thursday, Feb. 20, was the first day of actual competition.
The unfinished nuclear plant at Satsop provides an ideal location for the SubT competition because it offers an underground labyrinth to be explored with multiple levels. That verticality offers the teams an additional challenge to overcome.
The teams have developed robots that fly, move on a tread, move on legs and various combinations there of.
During the competition, the robots will map an underground course and identify what they’ve found.
There are 20 artifacts hidden throughout the subterranean course. Artifacts include heat-emitting mannequins, an air duct vent, tools, phones and atmospheric changes, such as the presence of gases. The robots will have to identify the artifacts without aid from their human operators.
The competition is not open to the public but it can be watched online at youtube.com/user/DARPAtv.
The Subterranean Challenge is one of three events that lead up to the final challenge, which offers a top prize of $2 million. The first challenge took place last year in a tunnel near Pittsburgh. The third leg is the cave circuit this August. The final event will combine aspects of all three environments and take place in August 2021.