NASA Robots to Compete in Underground Challenge in Mining Tunnels

A team led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will compete in a DARPA robotics challenge held in underground mining tunnels with a fleet of robots built to search tunnels, caves and other subterranean environments. (Photo Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

Robots are about to go underground — for a competition anyways.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the branch of the U.S. Department of Defense dedicated to developing new emerging technologies, is holding a challenge intended to develop technology for first responders and the military to map, navigate, and search underground. But the technology developed for the competition could also be used in future NASA missions to caves and lava tubes on other planets.

The DARPA Subterranean Challenge Systems Competition will be held August 15 – 22 in mining tunnels under Pittsburgh, and among the robots competing will be an entry from a team led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that features wheeled rovers, drones, and climbing robots that can rise on pinball-flipper-shaped treads to scale obstacles.

“By investing in this competition, we are investing in our future,” Leon Alkalai, manager of the JPL Office of Strategic Planning, said in a statement. “There’s no doubt that the next grand challenge for JPL and for NASA is to do more subsurface exploration.”

JPL has partnered with Caltech, MIT and KAIST (formerly the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) to form the Collaborative SubTerranean Autonomous Resilient Robots Systems team (CoSTAR). CoSTAR is one of 11 teams that will compete in formerly operational mines managed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Mining Program.

The CoSTAR team, which is comprised of 60 members, will be using several specialized robots instead of one, due to the “complexity of the terrain” inside the tunnels.

The fleet of robots will work together to map the underground passages, navigate using artificial intelligence, and locate objects like cellphones or heated mannequins hidden within the course.

No humans are allowed in the tunnels; the team that uses its robots to autonomously map the most objects to within about 16 feet of their location will win the Tunnel Circuit, the first of four stages. This will be followed by the Urban Circuit in February 2020, the Cave Circuit in August 2020, and the Systems Final in August 2021.

Teams competing in the final event have the opportunity to win up to $2 million in funding, according to DARPA.

In the Tunnel Circuit, wheeled rovers and tank-like tracked robots will cover the ground, while flying drones will find out-of-reach objects. CoSTAR’s Drivocopter can do both, driving over difficult terrain and flying along cave walls and through ceiling openings. However, it won’t be used to identify and map items until the Urban Circuit.

“The big question for NASA is: Is there life beyond Earth? One of the main places to find answers to that question is subsurface environments because they are some of the most pristine locations, shielded from ultraviolet radiation and cosmic rays,” said Ali Agha, the principal investigator of CoSTAR’s team. “If there is life in the solar system, these are the most likely places to harbor it.”

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