Among all of the other in-person events that have been totally wrecked by COVID-19 is the Cave Circuit of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge. DARPA has already hosted the in-person events for the Tunnel and Urban SubT circuits (see our previous coverage here), and the plan had always been for a trio of events representing three uniquely different underground environments in advance of the SubT Finals, which will somehow combine everything into one bonkers course.
While the SubT Urban Circuit event snuck in just under the lockdown wire in late February, DARPA made the difficult (but prudent) decision to cancel the in-person Cave Circuit event. What this means is that there will be no Systems Track Cave competition, which is a serious disappointment—we were very much looking forward to watching teams of robots navigating through an entirely unpredictable natural environment with a lot of verticality. Fortunately, DARPA is still running a Virtual Cave Circuit, and 17 teams will be taking part in this competition featuring a simulated cave environment that’s as dynamic and detailed as DARPA can make it.
DARPA’s Subterranean (SubT) Challenge will host its Cave Circuit Virtual Competition, which focuses on innovative solutions to map, navigate, and search complex, simulated cave environments November 17. Qualified teams have until Oct. 15 to develop and submit software-based solutions for the Cave Circuit via the SubT Virtual Portal, where their technologies will face unknown cave environments in the cloud-based SubT Simulator. Until then, teams can refine their roster of selected virtual robot models, choose sensor payloads, and continue to test autonomy approaches to maximize their score.
The Cave Circuit also introduces new simulation capabilities, including digital twins of Systems Competition robots to choose from, marsupial-style platforms combining air and ground robots, and breadcrumb nodes that can be dropped by robots to serve as communications relays. Each robot configuration has an associated cost, measured in SubT Credits – an in-simulation currency – based on performance characteristics such as speed, mobility, sensing, and battery life.
Each team’s simulated robots must navigate realistic caves, with features including natural terrain and dynamic rock falls, while they search for and locate various artifacts on the course within five meters of accuracy to score points during a 60-minute timed run. A correct report is worth one point. Each course contains 20 artifacts, which means each team has the potential for a maximum score of 20 points. Teams can leverage numerous practice worlds and even build their own worlds using the cave tiles found in the SubT Tech Repo to perfect their approach before they submit one official solution for scoring. The DARPA team will then evaluate the solution on a set of hidden competition scenarios.
Of the 17 qualified teams (you can see all of them here), there are a handful that we’ll quickly point out. Team BARCS, from Michigan Tech, was the winner of the SubT Virtual Urban Circuit, meaning that they may be the team to beat on Cave as well, although the course is likely to be unique enough that things will get interesting. Some Systems Track teams to watch include Coordinated Robotics, CTU-CRAS-NORLAB, MARBLE, NUS SEDS, and Robotika, and there are also a handful of brand new teams as well.
Now, just because there’s no dedicated Cave Circuit for the Systems Track teams, it doesn’t mean that there won’t be a Cave component (perhaps even a significant one) in the final event, which as far as we know is still scheduled to happen in fall of next year. We’ve heard that many of the Systems Track teams have been testing out their robots in caves anyway, and as the virtual event gets closer, we’ll be doing a sort of Virtual Systems Track series that highlights how different teams are doing mock Cave Circuits in caves they’ve found for themselves.
For more, we checked in with DARPA SubT program manager Dr. Timothy H. Chung.
IEEE Spectrum: Was it a difficult decision to cancel the Systems Track for Cave?
Tim Chung: The decision to go virtual only was heart wrenching, because I think DARPA’s role is to offer up opportunities that may be unimaginable for some of our competitors, like opening up a cave-type site for this competition. We crawled and climbed through a number of these sites, and I share the sense of disappointment that both our team and the competitors have that we won’t be able to share all the advances that have been made since the Urban Circuit. But what we’ve been able to do is pour a lot of our energy and the insights that we got from crawling around in those caves into what’s going to be a really great opportunity on the Virtual Competition side. And whether it’s a global pandemic, or just lack of access to physical sites like caves, virtual environments are an opportunity that we want to develop.
What kind of new features will be included in the Virtual Cave Circuit for this competition?
I’m really excited about these particular features because we’re seeing an opportunity for increased synergy between the physical and the virtual. The first I’d say is that we scanned some of the Systems Track robots using photogrammetry and combined that with some additional models that we got from the systems competitors themselves to turn their systems robots into virtual models. We often talk about the sim to real transfer and how successful we can get a simulation to transfer over to the physical world, but now we’ve taken something from the physical world and made it virtual. We’ve validated the controllers as well as the kinematics of the robots, we’ve iterated with the systems competitors themselves, and now we have these 13 robots (air and ground) in the SubT Tech Repo that now all virtual competitors can take advantage of.
We also have additional robot capability. Those comms bread crumbs are common among many of the competitors, so we’ve adopted that in the virtual world, and now you have comms relay nodes that are baked in to the SubT Simulator—you can have either six or twelve comms nodes that you can drop from a variety of our ground robot platforms. We have the marsupial deployment capability now, so now we have parent ground robots that can be mixed and matched with different child drones to become marsupial pairs.
And this is something I’ve been planning for for a while: we now have the ability to trigger things like rock falls. They still don’t quite look like Indiana Jones with the boulder coming down the corridor, but this comes really close. In addition to it just being an interesting and realistic consideration, we get to really dynamically test and stress the robots’ ability to navigate and recognize that something has changed in the environment and respond to it.
DARPA is still running a Virtual Cave Circuit, and 17 teams will be taking part in this competition featuring a simulated cave environment. Image: DARPA
No simulation is perfect, so can you talk to us about what kinds of things aren’t being simulated right now? Where does the simulator not match up to reality?
I think that question is foundational to any conversation about simulation. I’ll give you a couple of examples:
We have the ability to represent wholesale damage to a robot, but it’s not at the actuator or component level. So there’s not a reliability model, although I think that would be really interesting to incorporate so that you could do assessments on things like mean time to failure. But if a robot falls off a ledge, it can be disabled by virtue of being too damaged to continue.
With communications, and this is one that’s near and dear not only to my heart but also to all of those that have lived through developing communication systems and robotic systems, we’ve gone through and conducted RF surveys of underground environments to get a better handle on what propagation effects are. There’s a lot of research that has gone into this, and trying to carry through some of that realism, we do have path loss models for RF communications baked into the SubT Simulator. For example, when you drop a bread crumb node, it’s using a path loss model so that it can represent the degradation of signal as you go farther into a cave. Now, we’re not modeling it at the Maxwell equations level, which I think would be awesome, but we’re not quite there yet.
We do have things like battery depletion, sensor degradation to the extent that simulators can degrade sensor inputs, and things like that. It’s just amazing how close we can get in some places, and how far away we still are in others, and I think showing where the limits are of how far you can get simulation is all part and parcel of why SubT Challenge wants to have both System and Virtual tracks. Simulation can be an accelerant, but it’s not going to be the panacea for development and innovation, and I think all the competitors are cognizant those limitations.
One of the most amazing things about the SubT Virtual Track is that all of the robots operate fully autonomously, without the human(s) in the loop that the System Track teams have when they compete. Why make the Virtual Track even more challenging in that way?
I think it’s one of the defining, delineating attributes of the Virtual Track. Our continued vision for the simulation side is that the simulator offers us a chance to look at where things could be, and allows for us to explore things like larger scales, or increased complexity, or types of environments that we can’t physically gain access to—it really allows for us to find where some of those limits are in the technology based only on our imagination, and this is one of the intrinsic values of simulation.
But I think finding a way to incorporate human input, or more generally human factors like teleoperation interfaces and the in-situ stress that you might not be able to recreate in the context of a virtual competition provided a good reason for us to delineate the two competitions, with the Virtual Competition really being about the role of fully autonomous or self-sufficient systems going off and doing their solution without human guidance, while also acknowledging that the real world has conditions that would not necessarily be represented by a fully simulated version. Having said that, I think cognitive engineering still has an incredibly important role to play in human robot interaction.
What do we have to look forward to during the Virtual Competition Showcase?
We have a number of additional features and capabilities that we’ve baked into the simulator that will allow for us to derive some additional insights into our competition runs. Those insights might involve things like the performance of one or more robots in a given scenario, or the impact of the environment on different types of robots, and what I can tease is that this will be an opportunity for us to showcase both the technology and also the excitement of the robots competing in the virtual environment. I’m trying not to give too many spoilers, but we’ll have an opportunity to really get into the details.
Check back as we get closer to the 17 November event for more on the DARPA SubT Challenge.