The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

See Inside DARPA's Incredible Subterranean Finals Course

Caves, tunnels, and urban underground all handmade by DARPA in secret

4 min read
A legged robot inside of a dark and flowing stone cave
Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

When DARPA announced that the Subterranean Challenge Final Event would take place in a giant cavern complex in Louisville, and that it would include elements of tunnels, caves, and the urban underground, we had very high hopes for what the agency would put together. And, predictably, DARPA vastly exceeded those hopes. Inside of the Louisville Mega Cavern, DARPA worked for months to construct an incredible course from scratch, full of the kind of detail that you'd expect to see on a movie set. But just like a movie set, it was all temporary, and even worse, very few people will ever be able to really appreciate what DARPA has done—the course was never open to the public, and most of the teams themselves only really experienced the course through their robots and during a very brief post-competition tour.

After the competition ended on Friday, though, DARPA did give any teams that were interested an opportunity to run their robots around the course for a couple of hours. We were able to tag along with Team CERBERUS and Team CSIRO Data61, the first and second place SubT Challenge winners (separated in score by just one single minute!), as they and their robots explored the course in person and unsupervised for the first (and last) time.


As you look through these pictures, try to appreciate everything that DARPA has done to make the SubT Final course as realistic as possible. Everything was designed and built and sculpted and painted entirely by hand, based on real underground environments. DARPA also added an assortment of robot-specific challenges for both perception and mobility, which had a side-effect of making some parts of the course challenging for humans to traverse as well. Inside, it was often very dark, very close, and frequently slippery and wet. I was thankful both for my hard hat and for the well-lit robots that I followed around the course with their teams of human operators as we explored DARPA's fantasy subterranean world.

A scaffolding with DARPA banners outside of the entrance to a cave

Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The slightly scary entrance to the Louisville Mega Cavern. It's dark in there. Really dark.

1/30

Special thanks to Team CERBERUS and Team CSIRO Data61 for letting me tag along with them.

Last week, DARPA also posted some videos of the course, including walkthroughs with artifact placements and also remote footage of all of the final competition runs. We've included a couple below, but the rest can be found on DARPA's YouTube channel.

DARPA Subterranean Challenge Final Event Course Walkthrough - Artifact Configuration 3

DARPA Subterranean Challenge Finals Event Prize Round Scored Run CSIRO Data61

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
Horizontal
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
DarkGray

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

Keep Reading ↓Show less