The CSIRO won up to $6.2 million to develop a cave-exploring robot for the US military's research agency

Robot cave rescuers are coming. Picture: Getty Images

  • CSIRO wins one of seven spots to develop exploration robots for DARPA.
  • Up to $6.2 million funding available over three years.
  • Winner of challenge takes home a $US2 million prize.

Data61, the technology arm of Australia’s CSIRO, has been chosen by US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as one of seven teams to find new ways to explore underground spaces.

Data61 will have access to up to $US4.5 million ($6.2 million) over three years as it competes against six other teams in the DARPA SubT Challenge.

Nearly 30 people from Data61’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems research group and students from the University of Queensland will work alongside two funded partners, including the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The challenge calls for teams to develop robots and systems that can rapidly map, navigate, and search underground environments that are dangerous or inaccessible to humans.

“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,” said Timothy Chung, program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, on the SubT Challenge web page.

“The DARPA Subterranean Challenge aims to provide previously unimaginable situational awareness capabilities for operations underground.”

Here’s the space the teams have to navigate:

Picture: DARPA

They can choose to navigate it on a physical course, if they’re showing off hardware and software technologies, or a virtual track, if their approaches are fully software-based.

Robotics and Autonomous Systems group leader at Data61, Fred Pauling, said his team would be pairing ultralight legged robots with Data61’s Hovermap GPS-denied drone autonomy technology to create a robot squad that can “rapidly explore and map challenging underground environments”.

The team will create 3D maps of underground environments through LiDAR scanners on the legged robots and develop unmanned aerial vehicles which can fly in GPS-denied environments autonomously.

It would provide “unprecedented situational awareness in time-critical scenarios such as disaster response”, Pauling said.

Last year, the Hovermap technology enabled the world’s first fully autonomous beyond line-of-sight drone flight in an underground mine, 600 metres below the surface in Western Australia.

Hovermap LiDar mapping and autonomy payload fitted to a drone. Picture: Data61

There will be three circuit events beginning after the Proposers Day on January 18 in Virginia next year. The final is planned for 2021.

The winner of the Systems track will take home a $US2 million prize, while the winner of the Virtual track will earn a $US750,000 prize.

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