DARPA Subterranean Challenge pushes AMRs deep into the earth

The DARPA Subterranean Challenge pits competitors against difficult underground environments. | Image credit: DARPA

The DARPA Subterranean Challenge, System Competition finals take place Tuesday, September 21 – Friday, September 24, 2021.

DARPA encourages participation from multidisciplinary teams from around the world to address the autonomy, perception, networking, and mobility technologies necessary to map subsurface networks in unpredictable conditions. The team will be deploying autonomous mobile robots in various scenarios that present challenges in search and rescue, underground exploration, asset inspection and mining operations.

There are three different “circuits” in the competition. Each of these subdomains present different challenges and operating parameters.

  1. Tunnel – Tunnels can extend many kilometers in length with constrained passages, vertical shafts, and multiple levels.
  2. Urban – Urban underground environments can have complex layouts with multiple stories and span several city blocks.
  3. Cave – Natural cave networks often have irregular geological structures, with both constrained passages and large caverns.

Physical systems competition

Competitors can deploy solutions that use any type of locomotion. This includes wheeled AMRs, legged AMRs and aerial drones. Some teams are deploying commercially available robotics platforms including solutions from ClearPath Robotics and Boston Dynamics. Other teams have created bespoke solutions designed from their own inspiration and designed to meet the competition challenges. Teams in the Systems Competition will compete for a $2 million top prize in the Systems Competition Final Event.

Virtual systems competition

Also happening this week is a virtual challenge. The virtual challenge uses a software only, simulated virtual world to challenge teams to design and program solutions. The virtual challenge was added to enable more teams to compete without the need to travel for the physical systems events. Teams have developed software and algorithms using virtual models of systems, environments, and terrain to compete in simulation-based events, and explored larger-scale runs in simulated environments that explored significantly expanded scenario sizes and duration.

Complete rules online

You can read the rules of the competition, to learn more about how the competition routes will be setup, and the constraints that competitors have to follow.

From the game manual: “Each team is envisioned to deploy its systems to provide rapid situational awareness through mapping of the unknown environment and localization of artifacts (e.g., survivors, electrical boxes). As the systems explore the environment, these situational awareness updates are provided via reachback to a Base Station in as close to realtime as possible. Given the largescale nature and complexity of subterranean environments, the courses could include small passages, sharp turns, stairs, rails, large drops/climbs, mud, water, and other mobilitystressing terrain features and obstacles. Challenge participants should expect, for example, both constrained areas with humancrawlable cross sections as well as larger underground open spaces that could include large ledges or vertical shafts. No breaching, burrowing, or use of explosives is permitted.”

DARP SUBT challenge items

Watch online, in realtime

You can watch the competition live on SubTV, with a live show on The DARPA SUBT YouTube Channel:


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Written by

Mike Oitzman

Mike Oitzman is Senior Editor of WTWH's Robotics Group, cohost of The Robot Report Podcast, and founder of the Mobile Robot Guide. Oitzman is a robotics industry veteran with 25-plus years of experience at various high-tech companies in the roles of marketing, sales and product management. He can be reached at moitzman@wtwhmedia.com.