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The challenge

Mapping subsurface networks and unpredictable conditions

Complex underground settings present significant challenges for military and civilian first responders. Hazards vary drastically across domains, often degrading or changing over time, and are often too high-risk for personnel to enter.

DARPA Subterranean Challenge map rendering showing a representation of a tunnel , urban and cave environment.

Features of DARPA applications are explained and include:

  1. revolutionary vision: create breakthrough technologies and capabilities for underground operations
  2. competitions: system; virtual
  3. subdomains: tunnel systems; urban underground; cave networks.

Learn more at www.darpa.mil

The DARPA Subterranean Challenge explores innovative approaches and new technologies to rapidly map, navigate, and search complex underground environments. ©  Image courtesy of DARPA

To help resolve this challenge, 11 teams from around the world were invited to propose novel methods for tackling these time-critical scenarios, including CSIRO's Data61, the only Australian team.

Teams must develop and demonstrate physical systems that can function in three circuit events on physical, representative subterranean courses, and focus on advancing and evaluating novel physical solutions in realistic field environments.

Our response

Developing a team of autonomous robots

Our world-leading Robotics and Autonomous Systems group is one of seven teams to receive up to US$4.5 million in funding from DARPA to compete in the SubT Challenge. They are also one of 8 international teams to be selected for the final challenge, which will incorporate elements of the three previous circuits (tunnel, urban and cave).

The competition challenges teams to deploy an autonomous robotics team to successfully navigate and map complex environments, while identifying objects such as mannequins, backpacks, fire extinguishers and mobile phones throughout each course, analysing and communicating on each objects location and status to other vehicles in the team and humans at headquarters.

DARPA SubT Challenge Team CSIRO's Data61.

The CSIRO's Data61 team combines the expertise of our researchers, engineers and scientists with mapping and autonomy spinout Emesent, Australian robotics manufacturer BIAS, and US research partner Georgia Institute of Technology. Quadrapods, tracked vehicles, drones and hexapods are just so me of the robots on the team, which is adapted for each challenge.

Each bot is equipped with a perception pack called 'Wildcat', which enables a vehicle to map, analyse and navigate its surrounding environment without any human intervention. These packs also include a perception system ('Catpack') that provides real-time localisation and mapping data for autonomous operation and high-fidelity mapping.

The results

Fourth place in the latest challenge, and one of eight teams selected for the final circuit

A colourised 3D map of an underground hallway with coloured posters on the wall and air vents in the ceiling.

Our team are currently preparing for the Final Event of the Subterranean DARPA Challenge. Hosted in the Louisville Mega Cavern in Louisville, Kentucky, the teams will need to rapidly map, navigate, and search complex underground environments such as human-made tunnel systems, urban undergrounds, and natural cave networks.

The placed fourth out of nine in the last physical challenge held in the U.S in February 2020, and have spent 2020 and 2021 focusing on mobility, sensing and communications. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the third leg of the challenge (the cave circuit) was cancelled, however, our team recreated the course at the Chillagoe-Mungana Caves in North Queensland.

A drone exploring an underground cave environment.

The Final Event is scheduled for September 21st - 23rd.

The technology developed for the DARPA challenge has been applied to multiple scenarios across Australian industries, including agriculture, mining and defence.

An example of this would be the Wildcat perception system and the Early Adopters Program (EAP), makes low risk, affordable and customisable technologies available for Australian companies to trial and build upon, for use in potentially improving production efficiency and building new competitive advantages or markets.

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