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By Alison Donnellan 4 March 2020 3 min read

The CSIRO Data61 team at the DARPA Urban Circuit Challenge

Small passages, sharp turns, stairs, large drops and steep climbs – these are some of the obstacles CSIRO’s Data61 robotics team faced in DARPA’s (the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) latest challenge, with the team placing a well-earned fourth. 

Held this year in Washington, the second circuit of the challenge, the Urban Circuit, required participants to navigate an abandoned nuclear power plant and map, identify and report items of interest throughout the course.   

DARPA’s courses have been designed to simulate real-world situations, explained team member Dr Navinda Kottege, with new and novel techniques required to safely and successfully navigate disasters and dangerous environments.  

“The challenge is all about sending teams of robots into unknown environments,” he said. “We don’t have a map, we don’t have directions, and we don’t have GPS.” 

This Circuit focused on identifying hazardous areas that require breathing apparatus, points of escape, and sources of fresh air. Thermal manikins that emulate human survivors, power sources, gas leaks and more must be identified, with teams needing to overcome low or no-light, obscured objects, and fractured environments; factors that first responders and service members would encounter in an underground rescue scenario.  

“A mine or building collapsing are both examples of where things are not exactly as planned, and you wouldn’t necessarily know what it looks like beforehand,” said Dr Kottege. “That’s where the navigation technology we’re developing and using in these DARPA challenges is very useful.”  

Considerations for this year’s robot team included the ability to autonomously navigate stairs, a robust sensing and mapping system, and the capacity to communicate findings back to operators.  

 “We had some daunting challenges during the last event where we lost communication with the robots because the environment did not allow for the propagation of radio waves,” explained Dr Kottege

Satsop Nuclear Power Plant where the DARPA Urban Circuit took place

“This year, we’ve designed each robot to be not only a receiver, but a supplier of communications, like a node. So even if we lose a robot, there’s a chance that you’ll be able to regain communication using this node system.”  

 “Some of the robots are also capable of dropping communication nodes, so if the bot is experiencing a weak communication link, the operator can trigger a node drop before exploring further, developing a communication backbone that’s both static and mobile.” 

After placing fifth in last year’s Subterranean Circuit, the Data61 team received Phase II funding to graduate to the next round of the Challenge. Data61 is the only Australian team participating in this international competition, with this year’s team of six robots including four machines that were designed and manufactured in Queensland.   

“We’re not only representing Data61 and CSIRO, but all of Australia,” said Dr Kottege. “This is a great way to promote Australia’s capability in robotics and automation, which can be applied to so many ndustries, like mining, agriculture, construction and much more.”   

Coming up in August this year, our team will now start preparations for the Cave Circuit, which will certainly bring its own exciting challenges.

Take a look at some of the event highlights here:

Kitten in action: 

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