Meet the Robots of Fukushima Daiichi

A cleanup crew of automatons will go where humans fear to tread

1 min read
Meet the Robots of Fukushima Daiichi
Photo: TEPCO

Photo: Kyodo/AP Photo
Bigger and Tougher: The next-generation robot from the Chiba Institute researchers, Sakura, can roll over rubble or through shallow pools of water. It can also carry heavy equipment, like a camera capable of detecting dangerous gamma radiation.

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Inside DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge

What SubT means for the future of autonomous robots

14 min read
A photo of a robot lighting up a stone tunnel.

An ANYmal robot from Team Cerberus autonomously explores a cave on DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge course.

Evan Ackerman

Deep below the Louisville, Ky., zoo lies a network of enormous caverns carved out of limestone. The caverns are dark. They’re dusty. They’re humid. And during one week in September 2021, they were full of the most sophisticated robots in the world. The robots (along with their human teammates) were there to tackle a massive underground course designed by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as the culmination of its three-year Subterranean Challenge.

The SubT was first announced in early 2018. DARPA designed the competition to advance practical robotics in extreme conditions, based around three distinct underground environments: human-made tunnels, the urban underground, and natural caves. To do well, the robots would have to work in teams to traverse and map completely unknown areas spanning kilometers, search out a variety of artifacts, and identify their locations with pinpoint accuracy under strict time constraints. To more closely mimic the scenarios in which first responders might utilize autonomous robots, robots experienced darkness, dust and smoke, and even DARPA-controlled rockfalls that occasionally blocked their progress.

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