DARPA Subterranean Challenge: Meet the First 9 Teams

Nine robotics teams are participating in an integration exercise for DARPA's Subterranean Challenge this weekend

2 min read
DARPA Subterranean Challenge
The DARPA Subterranean Challenge (SubT) will task teams of humans and robots to explore complex underground environments.
Image: DARPA

As part of the very first event in the DARPA Subterranean Challenge (SubT), the organizers have invited nine teams (and their robots) to Edgar Experimental Mine in Idaho Springs, Colo., for a sort of test run called the SubT Integration Exercise, or STIX. These nine teams have already demonstrated their systems to DARPA, showing that they can navigate autonomously over rough terrain, locate objects, and respond to an e-stop command if they go berserk.

For the teams, this will be an opportunity to test out their robots in an actual tunnel system, and at the same time DARPA itself will be able to make sure all of their testing infrastructure and whatnot works, well in advance of the Tunnel Circuit Challenge itself, which will take place in August.

Our detailed post on SubT and interview with DARPA program manager Timothy Chung cover all of this stuff, along with the guidelines that teams have to follow when designing and deploying their systems, but all that information doesn’t necessarily give a sense of what kind of hardware teams will likely be deploying at SubT. Fortunately, many of the teams participating in STIX have posted pictures or videos of their robots, so we’ve put together this article to introduce each team and have a look at what they’ll be working with.

Some of these videos appear to be part of earlier qualification submissions for SubT and STIX, while others are just examples of the kinds of capabilities that team (or members of teams) have in the context of underground robotics. We’re expecting to see much, much more over the next few weeks and months as teams return from STIX and start working towards the first Tunnel Circuit Challenge in August, but this should give you a reasonable idea of what kind of thing to expect. 

Team CERBERUS: CollaborativE walking & flying RoBots for autonomous ExploRation in Underground Settings

Team CoSTAR: Collaborative SubTerranean Autonomous Resilient Robots

NASA JPL SubT robotsImage: Team CoSTAR

Team CRAS: Center for Robotics and Autonomous Systems

Team CRETISE: Collaborative Robot Exploration and Teaming In Subterranean Environments

Team CSIRO Data61

Team Explorer

Team MARBLE: Multi-agent Autonomy with Radar-Based Localization for Exploration

Team PLUTO: Pennsylvania Laboratory for Underground Tunnel Operations

Team Robotika

  • Robotika.cz, Czech Republic
  • Czech University of Life Science, Czech Republic

[ DARPA SubT ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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