DARPA Wants to Map Everything Underground


Man-made tunnels, underground infrastructure, and natural cave networks — such as the one in Thailand that was the scene of one of the most incredible rescue efforts in recent history — all have something in common: they are not adequately mapped.

So, as DARPA tends to do with many big-picture problems, like autonomous flight, artificial intelligence, and microrobotics, just to name a few, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency created a challenge, the DARPA Subterranean (SubT) Challenge.

Registration opens on August 15th for competitors who will vie for more than $3 million.

The goal of the SubT Challenge is to find innovative new solutions to be able to rapidly map, navigate, and search complex, remote underground systems.

The teams will compete in three preliminary events before a final competition is held in 2021.

  • In the first event, teams will address challenges with human-made tunnels.
  • The second will include underground environments in urban areas, like infrastructure and mass transit systems.
  • The third will focus on natural cave networks, like the more than six-mile long limestone system in Thailand.

The agency launched the idea in late December 2017, but have finally set some competition dates.

For example, on September 27, 2018, DARPA will host a competitors' day in Louisville, Kentucky where participants can meet up and exchange ideas — though, I'm not sure how open each team will be with $3 million on the line.

As in previous challenges, self-funded teams will compete alongside DARPA-funded teams.

Three years from now, in the final event, teams will have to traverse a course that includes challenges from all three types of environments.

The competition includes both a systems, or real-world, competition, as well as a virtual track that will test software and algorithm solutions in simulated environments.

It might cost a little more, but the money is in the systems competition, where the winner takes home $2 million. The prize is $750K for the virtual track. 

According to Timothy Chung, program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, a “lack of situational awareness” is a primary problem for soldiers and first responders. He says, “we often don’t know what lies beneath us.”

The winner of the SubT Challenge just might find the answer.

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