Good thing robots can’t be claustrophobic.


The U.S. military’s research agency wants help navigating the subterranean world. And since it doesn’t look like a ragtag team of sewer-dwelling mutant turtles will be enlisting in the armed forces any time soon, the agency is turning to the next best option: engineers.

Last week, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced six teams of roboticists that will compete in its Subterranean Challenge, a multi-year competition with $2.75 million up for grabs. Each team will receive funding to create robots that can map, navigate, and search complex underground environments, such as man-made tunnels, natural cave systems, and subterranean urban infrastructure.


The teams can choose to compete in just one of two tracks — systems or virtual — or both.

For the systems track, a team will create robots it can demonstrate on a physical course. Some of the spaces on this course may be barely large enough for a human to navigate, while others could be big enough for an all-terrain vehicle.

For the virtual track, a team will need to create the software for subterranean robots and demonstrate it in a simulated environment boasting a wider range of scenarios than in the physical tests.


In any case, the teams must be ready to compete in the first of DARPA's tests in the fall of 2019. After a final competition in the fall of 2021, DARPA will award the winner of the systems track $2 million and the winner of the virtual track $750,000. The competition's judges will place a premium on autonomy, since communicating with robots while they're deep underground can be difficult.

Perhaps more important than earning the big payout, though, these teams of roboticists could help the military save lives if the U.S. ever finds itself in a situation like the daring rescue of children from a Thai cave earlier this year. We'd like to see mutant turtles manage that.

READ MORE: Modular Robots Being Developed to Navigate Tunnels and Caves [The Engineer]

More on cave rescues: Elon Musk Is Sending a Team of Engineers to Help Rescue Trapped Thai Boys

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