Data61’s SubT team took part in the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Subterranean Challenge Tunnel Event in Pittsburgh, USA on the 15th August. Just before the team took off to the US, we caught up with Fred Pauling, Robotics and Autonomous Systems Group Leader, Data61.

A squad of five autonomous robots and our SubT team represented Australia at DARPA’s (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Subterranean Challenge, a US-based competition that explores new approaches to rapidly map, navigate, and search underground environments.

Together with partners Emesent, a Data61 spin-out, and partner Georgia Institute of Technology, we are the only Australian team participating, and the only team from outside North America to receive up to US$4.5 million in funding across the prestigious three-year challenge to create 3D maps of underground environments.

“We are very proud to fly the flag for Australia and represent CSIRO’s Data61,” said Fred Pauling, Robotics and Autonomous Systems Group Leader. “This challenge has a global profile and it’s a great opportunity to raise awareness of the work that we do.”

DARPA SubT team

The Data61 SubT team with Fred Pauling, Robotics and Autonomous Systems Group Leader, on the far left

The Data61 SubT team’s robots, most of which are Australian made, will compete in the Tunnel Circuit event between 15-22 August against nine other international teams. For the first time, the Australian robots will work as a collective, building and sharing 3D maps with one another, as well as exploring underground environments without human assistance in GPS-denied environments.

“The Tunnel Circuit Event will be a challenging course for the robots to go into,” said Fred. “It will essentially be an abandoned coal mine where we will deploy a team of robots to go into that environment and rapidly map and explore the tunnels.

“We will be competing alongside six other funded teams and four self-funded teams during the event, so there will be a lot of activity,” he continued. “We’ll need a solid team of people on the ground to ensure we compete effectively, so it’s great that we’ll be joined by our colleagues at Emesent and Georgia Tech.”

Two new additional vehicles, a BIA5 Titan, built by QLD-based company BIA5 and currently used by the QLD police, and our proprietaryHexapod system, Bruce, have been qualified for the event and will compete in this track.

BIA5 OzBot Titan equipped with CSIRO Data61's sensing and navigation platform exploring a tunnel

BIA5 OzBot Titan equipped with CSIRO Data61’s sensing and navigation platform exploring a tunnel

Over the next two years, teams will compete in three preliminary circuit events and a final integrated challenge course.

The final event, planned for 2021, will compete for up to USD$2 million and put teams to the test with courses that incorporate diverse challenges from three environments, including tunnel systems, urban underground and cave networks.

Beyond the competition, the technology developed has a myriad of applications.

The robotics and network technology can help human first responders in understanding and exploring hazardous underground environments, such as collapsed buildings or subway accidents, without the need of sending people to risk their lives.

More broadly, 3D mapping, sensing and remote operations can be adopted across a range of industries, including mining, transport, building and construction, and agriculture.

“I can see a lot of collaboration opportunities across CSIRO around the technology we are developing for this challenge,” said Fred. “Some of the work that is happening in the Active Integrated Matter (AIM) FSP around advanced materials cross-pollinate into this challenge.

For example, designing robots that are better suited to operating harsh environments. We are keen to collaborate with our colleagues in Minerals as well to better understand the deployment scenarios in the context of the mining industry.”

Taking it even further, the technology can have applications in space, such as human colonisation and utilisation of the Moon or Mars’ resources. Possibilities are limitless. For now, we’ll focus on winning the Tunnel Circuit Event and making Australia proud. Good luck to the team!