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.

Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Team CERBERUS' first robot enters the course during the final run.

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)

Can This DIY Rocket Program Send an Astronaut to Space?

Copenhagen Suborbitals is crowdfunding its crewed rocket

15 min read
Five people stand in front of two tall rockets. Some of the people are wearing space suits and holding helmets, others are holding welding equipment.

Copenhagen Suborbitals volunteers are building a crewed rocket on nights and weekends. The team includes [from left] Mads Stenfatt, Martin Hedegaard Petersen, Jørgen Skyt, Carsten Olsen, and Anna Olsen.

Mads Stenfatt

It was one of the prettiest sights I have ever seen: our homemade rocket floating down from the sky, slowed by a white-and-orange parachute that I had worked on during many nights at the dining room table. The 6.7-meter-tall Nexø II rocket was powered by a bipropellant engine designed and constructed by the Copenhagen Suborbitals team. The engine mixed ethanol and liquid oxygen together to produce a thrust of 5 kilonewtons, and the rocket soared to a height of 6,500 meters. Even more important, it came back down in one piece.

That successful mission in August 2018 was a huge step toward our goal of sending an amateur astronaut to the edge of space aboard one of our DIY rockets. We're now building the Spica rocket to fulfill that mission, and we hope to launch a crewed rocket about 10 years from now.

Copenhagen Suborbitals is the world's only crowdsourced crewed spaceflight program, funded to the tune of almost US $100,000 per year by hundreds of generous donors around the world. Our project is staffed by a motley crew of volunteers who have a wide variety of day jobs. We have plenty of engineers, as well as people like me, a pricing manager with a skydiving hobby. I'm also one of three candidates for the astronaut position.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less