DARPA held the Virtual Cave Circuit event of the Subterranean Challenge on Tuesday in the form of a several hour-long livestream. We got to watch (along with all of the competing teams) as virtual robots explored virtual caves fully autonomously, dodging rockfalls, spotting artifacts, scoring points, and sometimes running into stuff and falling over.
Expert commentary was provided by DARPA, and we were able to watch multiple teams running at once, skipping from highlight to highlight. It was really very well done (you can watch an archive of the entire stream here), but they made us wait until the very end to learn who won: First place went to Coordinated Robotics, with BARCS taking second, and third place going to newcomer Team Dynamo.
Huge congratulations to Coordinated Robotics! It’s worth pointing out that the top three teams were separated by an incredibly small handful of points, and on a slightly different day, with slightly different artifact positions, any of them could have come out on top. This doesn’t diminish Coordinated Robotics’ victory in the least—it means that the competition was fierce, and that the problem of autonomous cave exploration with robots has been solved (virtually, at least) in several different but effective ways.
We know Coordinated Robotics pretty well at this point, but here’s an introduction video:
You heard that right—Coordinated Robotics is just Kevin Knoedler, all by himself. This would be astonishing, if we weren’t already familiar with Kevin’s abilities: He won NASA’s virtual Space Robotics Challenge by himself in 2017, and Coordinated Robotics placed first in the DARPA SubT Virtual Tunnel Circuit and second in the Virtual Urban Circuit. We asked Kevin how he managed to do so spectacularly well (again), and here’s what he told us:
IEEE Spectrum: Can you describe what it was like to watch your team of robots on the live stream, and to see them score the most points?
Kevin Knoedler: It was exciting and stressful watching the live stream. It was exciting as the top few scores were quite close for the cave circuit. It was stressful because I started out behind and worked my way up, but did not do well on the final world. Luckily, not doing well on the first and last worlds was offset by better scores on many of the runs in between. DARPA did a very nice job with their live stream of the cave circuit results.
How did you decide on the makeup of your team, and on what sensors to use?
To decide on the makeup of the team I experimented with quite a few different vehicles. I had a lot of trouble with the X2 and other small ground vehicles flipping over. Based on that I looked at the larger ground vehicles that also had a sensor capable of identifying drop-offs. The vehicles that met those criteria for me were the Marble HD2, Marble Husky, Ozbot ATR, and the Absolem. Of those ground vehicles I went with the Marble HD2. It had a downward looking depth camera that I could use to detect drop-offs and was much more stable on the varied terrain than the X2. I had used the X3 aerial vehicle before and so that was my first choice for an aerial platform.
What were some things that you learned in Tunnel and Urban that you were able to incorporate into your strategy for Cave?
In the Tunnel circuit I had learned a strategy to use ground vehicles and in the Urban circuit I had learned a strategy to use aerial vehicles. At a high level that was the biggest thing I learned from the previous circuits that I was able to apply to the Cave circuit. At a lower level I was able to apply many of the development and testing strategies from the previous circuits to the Cave circuit.
What aspect of the cave environment was most challenging for your robots?
I would say it wasn't just one aspect of the cave environment that was challenging for the robots. There were quite a few challenging aspects of the cave environment. For the ground vehicles there were frequently paths that looked good as the robot started on the path, but turned into drop-offs or difficult boulder crawls. While it was fun to see the robot plan well enough to slowly execute paths over the boulders, I was wishing that the robot was smart enough to try a different path rather than wasting so much time crawling over the large boulders. For the aerial vehicles the combination of tight paths along with large vertical spaces was the biggest challenge in the environment. The large open vertical areas were particularly challenging for my aerial robots. They could easily lose track of their position without enough nearby features to track and it was challenging to find the correct path in and out of such large vertical areas.
How will you be preparing for the SubT Final?
To prepare for the SubT Final the vehicles will be getting a lot smarter. The ground vehicles will be better at navigation and communicating with one another. The aerial vehicles will be better able to handle large vertical areas both from a positioning and a planning point of view. Finally, all of the vehicles will do a better job coordinating what areas have been explored and what areas have good leads for further exploration.
The final score for the DARPA SubT Cave Circuit virtual competition.Image: DARPA
We also had a chance to ask SubT program manager Tim Chung a few questions at yesterday’s post-event press conference, about the course itself and what he thinks teams should have learned from the competition:
IEEE Spectrum: Having looked through some real caves, can you give some examples of some of the most significant differences between this simulation and real caves? And with the enormous variety of caves out there, how generalizable are the solutions that teams came up with?
Tim Chung: Many of the caves that I’ve had to crawl through and gotten bumps and scrapes from had a couple of different features that I’ll highlight. The first is the variations in moisture— a lot of these caves were naturally formed with streams and such, so many of the caves we went to had significant mud, flowing water, and such. And so one of the things we're not capturing in the SubT simulator is explicitly anything that would submerge the robots, or otherwise short any of their systems. So from that perspective, that's one difference that's certainly notable.
And then the other difference I think is the granularity of the terrain, whether it's rubble, sand, or just raw dirt, friction coefficients are all across the board, and I think that's one of the things that any terrestrial simulator will both struggle with and potentially benefit from— that is, terramechanics simulation abilities. Given the emphasis on mobility in the SubT simulation, we’re capturing just a sliver of the complexity of terramechanics, but I think that's probably another take away that you'll certainly see— where there’s that distinction between physical and virtual technologies.
To answer your second question about generalizability— that’s the multi-million dollar question! It’s definitely at the crux of why we have eight diverse worlds, both in size verticality, dimensions, constraint passageways, etc. But this is eight out of countless variations, and the goal of course is to be able to investigate what those key dependencies are. What I'll say is that the out of the seventy three different virtual cave tiles, which are the building blocks that make up these virtual worlds, quite a number of them were not only inspired by real world caves, but were specifically designed so that we can essentially use these tiles as unit tests going forward. So, if I want to simulate vertical inclines, here are the tiles that are the vertical vertical unit tests for robots, and that’s how we’re trying to to think through how to tease out that generalizability factor.
What are some observations from this event that you think systems track teams should pay attention to as they prepare for the final event?
One of the key things about the virtual competition is that you submit your software, and that's it. So you have to design everything from state management to failure mode triage, really thinking about what could go wrong and then building out your autonomous capabilities either to react to some of those conditions, or to anticipate them. And to be honest I think that the humans in the loop that we have in the systems competition really are key enablers of their capability, but also could someday (if not already) be a crutch that we might not be able to develop.
Thinking through some of the failure modes in a fully autonomous software deployed setting are going to be incredibly valuable for the systems competitors, so that for example the human supervisor doesn't have to worry about those failure modes as much, or can respond in a more supervisory way rather than trying to joystick the robot around. I think that's going to be one of the greatest impacts, thinking through what it means to send these robots off to autonomously get you the information you need and complete the mission
This isn’t to say that the humans aren't going to be useful and continue to play a role of course, but I think this shifting of the role of the human supervisor from being a state manager to being more of a tactical commander will dramatically highlight the impact of the virtual side on the systems side.
What, if anything, should we take away from one person teams being able to do so consistently well in the virtual circuit?
It’s a really interesting question. I think part of it has to do with systems integration versus software integration. There's something to be said for the richness of the technologies that can be developed, and how many people it requires to be able to develop some of those technologies. With the systems competitors, having one person try to build, manage, deploy, service, and operate all of those robots is still functionally quite challenging, whereas in the virtual competition, it really is a software deployment more than anything else. And so I think the commonality of single person teams may just be a virtue of the virtual competition not having some of those person-intensive requirements.
In terms of their strong performance, I give credit to all of these really talented folks who are taking upon themselves to jump into the competitor pool and see how well they do, and I think that just goes to show you that whether you're one person or ten people people or a hundred people on a team, a good idea translated and executed well really goes a long way.
Looking ahead, teams have a year to prepare for the final event, which is still scheduled to be held sometime in fall 2021. And even though there was no cave event for systems track teams, the fact that the final event will be a combination of tunnel, urban, and cave circuits means that systems track teams have been figuring out how to get their robots to work in caves anyway, and we’ll be bringing you some of their stories over the next few weeks.
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Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.