Autonomous, Subterranean Robots Compete in Elma for DARPA Challenge

The underground chamber was quiet, except for the slight whirring emanating from a four-wheeled robot readying itself to enter the darkened tunnel that lay before it. A scuffling of feet and a command from the robotics team leader preempted the engineered creation’s trek and, suddenly, the robot accelerated out of view, its whirring slowly fading out of ear shot.

This robot, along with numerous others, was part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Subterranean Challenge that took place at Satsop Business Park in Elma during the past week. A division of the United States Department of Defense, DARPA’s main objective is to develop emerging technologies for use by the military. The Subterranean Challenge is a monetary competition hosted by the organization to inspire development of autonomous, subterranean technologies.

Approximately 160 contest participants representing 11 countries, 80 DARPA staffers, and more than 50 robots gathered in the shell of the nuclear power plant in Elma to compete in a scavenger hunt of sorts — teams constructed robots to map underground areas, locate various artifacts, and effectively report their locations back to ground level.

DARPA program manager Timothy Chung said technology like this could have myriad applications, but can see its initial application most beneficial for first responders. He has collaborated with first responders across the nation, including Seattle’s fire department, to determine their needs for subterranean missions. Currently, if an emergency was to occur underground — for example, a fire in a subway tunnel — the only route of action is to send a firefighter into harm’s way to try and locate and assess the emergency. If a robot could be developed to mitigate human risk, that could make a world of difference for first responders.

But it’s no easy task. In this challenge, robots are expected to overcome unknown, challenging underground terrain and uncover a variety of types of artifacts: a red backpack, a cell phone, a vent, a gas “leak” emanating low amounts of CO2, and a manikin wearing thermal vests to emulate a survivor in an emergent situation.

The robots came from a variety of locations — including far-off destinations like Singapore and the Czech Republic — and in a variety of shapes and sizes — such as legged ground vehicles, tracked ground vehicles, wheeled ground vehicles, multirotors (UAVs), and aerostats. They used mesh networks, wifi, mapping technologies, and so many other indescribable aspects that came to fruition from innovative thinking about complicated problems.

Elma, in Grays Harbor County, was chosen to host the second wave of the challenge, the Urban Circuit. The first wave, held in Pittsburgh in August 2019, was the Tunnel Circuit and the third wave, held at a not-yet-disclosed location in August 2020, will be the Cave Circuit — all underground environments with unique aspects and obstacles. The competition will end with a final circuit in August 2021, which will incorporate elements of each of the previous challenges.

Satsop Business Park, which was originally constructed as a nuclear power plant but was never activated, was the perfect place to host the Urban Circuit, according to DARPA program manager Chung.

“With efforts to identify viability around the globe, we found that Satsop had the perfect blend of challenging environments and opportunities to make use of local resources,” Chung said, adding that having full access to a setting of this scale and magnitude was unmatched in DARPA’s search.

This is one of the largest projects Satsop Business Park has played host to in recent memory, said business and operations assistant James Messer. While he couldn’t provide an exact estimate for the economic impact of the event, he said projects of a similar scale, such as Michael Bay’s film Transformers 4 which was shot at the location, had a substantial impact on the area.

With approximately 240 additional individuals populating the region, staying at the Elma Hotel, in and around the Olympia area, and at luxurious beach house Airbnbs on the Pacific Coast, the influx in regional spending is palpable.

The publicity from the global event bodes well for Satsop as a destination as well. “We hope that this would draw more events like this,” Messer said, adding that the majority of their occupants currently are in the photography and film industries, but that this event adds another layer to its repertoire.

Today, the DARPA Subterranean Challenge came to a close and announced winners for the Urban Circuit. The first place winner, CoSTAR from South Korea, found the most artifacts during its underground excursion. Prizes for this challenge topped at $500,000, but the challenge overall boasts a whopping $6.9 million prize pool.

But it isn’t just about the monetary gains for these teams. Chung said this event activates and inspires future robotics professionals into a trajectory of innovation. “We are populating, creating, and fostering innovation in those who are early on in their careers in robotics,” he said. “We’re creating a community that prioritizes creation and acceleration of ideas.”

We can’t wait to see how future technologies, tested in a tiny town here in Washington state, culminate in breakthroughs and impacts around the world. For more information on the Subterranean Challenge, visit this website.

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