DARPA Contest Wants New Tech for Surviving Underground

Saturday, 30 December 2017 - 12:35PM
Technology
Military Tech
Saturday, 30 December 2017 - 12:35PM
DARPA Contest Wants New Tech for Surviving Underground
DARPA

Despite how focused we are on getting humans up into the sky, whether through flying cars or rockets, there are others who think the opposite: what if we don't go underground enough?

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) counts themselves among those looking down. They believe military and first responders could make especially good use of underground travel when quickly moving from place to place, but caves and tunnels are dangerous, and we don't have the technology to ensure they'll reach their destination without getting lost and/or injured.

This is the focus of DARPA's new contest, which is inviting proposals and concepts for new tech that could help soldiers, firefighters, etc. move beneath the surface without fearing for their own safety. The goal, in their own words, is for contestants to create something to "rapidly map, navigate, and search underground environments." According to Timothy Chung, a program manager at the agency:

Opening quote
"One of the main limitations facing warfighters and emergency responders in subterranean environments is a lack of situational awareness; we often don’t know what lies beneath us. The DARPA Subterranean Challenge aims to provide previously unimaginable situational awareness capabilities for operations underground."
Closing quote




The contest has separate categories for both physical hardware prototypes (to be tested on a real obstacle course) and virtual software (to be tested on a simulated obstacle course), and there are few limitations on who can enter; despite being part of the U.S. government, they're open to local and international contestants. The winner of the "Systems" track for designing hardware could win $2 million, while the winner of the "Virtual" track for software is looking at a smaller $750,000.

And as they've done before, they'll be judging self-funded entrees alongside DARPA-funded entrees, which seems completely unfair, but they'll likely claim it's all for the advancement of science anyways.

By 2021, the science obstacle course will come into play, and all the entrees will be tested on how well they work inside tunnel systems, man-made urban environments like subway tracks, and natural cave systems.




As out there as this contest may seem, this is far from the weirdest thing DARPA is working on right now. The agency has a tendency to drift toward the weird, with everything from disintegrating drones to Matrix-style brain implants currently on their drawing board. Heck, they're even looking at ways to turn plants into surveillance tools.

In that context, technology for rapidly mapping underground environments seems tame by comparison, as useful as it could potentially end up being. And DARPA thinks that whatever technology arises from this contest could indeed be useful down the road. According to Fred Kennedy, director of DARPA's Tactical Technology Office:

Opening quote
"We've reached a crucial point where advances in robotics, autonomy, and even biological systems could permit us to explore and exploit underground environments that are too dangerous for humans. Instead of avoiding caves and tunnels, we can use surrogates to map and assess their suitability for use."
Closing quote


The deadline to apply is next month on January 18, 2018, although the competition won't conclude until 2021.

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