Wheels, Drones And Rescue Randy: DARPA Robotics Competition Puts Mine Rescue To The Test

Aug 21, 2019

On a hot, sunny day in South Park Township, a team of roboticists from Philadelphia anxiously wait outside of the Safety Research Coal Mine at the Bruceton Research Center. Team Pluto has a four-legged robot inside, and it's looking for objects in the simulated mine disaster scenario. No team members are allowed inside, so it's counting on the robot to deliver the news. 

The team is pinged by the dog-like bot: it found a cellphone, earning a point for the team. They erupt in cheers.

Team Pluto, made up of students and faculty from the University of Pennsylvania and engineers from two private robotics firms, is one of 11 teams from all over the world participating in the Subterranean Challenge, held by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. This particular circuit simulates a mine disaster scenario, and the teams get points when their robots find objects, like a backpack, drill and mannequin in mining gear named "Rescue Randy."

Team Pluto waits to see if its robots will find any objects.
Credit Kathleen J. Davis / 90.5 WESA

DARPA project manager Tim Chung said the agency hopes the Subterranean Challenge spurs the development of robots that can assist in war zones and disaster scenarios. 

"We see immediate paths and conenctions to technologies that I think will dramatically improve how we conduct operations today," Chung said. 

Team Pluto's C.J. Taylor said a lot of work goes into simply keeping the robots on their feet.

"They're doing everything completely autonomously, so every step they take is kind of a minor victory for us," Taylor said. "We always feel that we could do better, we learn so much from each of these events and that gives us new ideas about things that we want to try."

The types of robots in the competition were varied: some used large wheels to navigate, other teams used drones. One of the more novel creations for the competition was a large, blimp-like bot from Taiwanese team NCTU. It's nicknamed Duckie Floats, for the robotics software program the team used called Duckietown.

NCTU's Duckie Floats blimp goes through a mine run on Wednesday, August 21.
Credit Youtube / DARPA

"Even if it hits the wall it still operates normally," said NCTU team member Yiwei Huang. "It's a little bit experimental, it's not perfect right now." 

One of the most successful teams in the Tunnel Circuit was Team Explorer, a collaboration between Carnegie Mellon University and Oregon State University. They primarily used ground robots with large wheels, though they also had drones in their arsenal. One of the team leads, Geoff Hollinger, said they're excited about how well they're doing.

"But we want to push the limit," Hollinger said. "We want to make sure we're well positioned for the further competitions, because this is just the beginning."

This is the first of four competitions in the Subterranean Challenge, which runs through August 2021. Future circuits will take place in urban and cave environments. Teams aren't required to participate in all parts of the Challenge, though many plan to do so.

This story was updated on August 22, 2019 at 12:38 p.m. to include final scores from the Tunnel Circuit.