Assemble Your (Virtual) Robotic Underground Exploration Team

It’s amazing how many things have managed to move online in recent weeks, many with a beneficial side effect of eliminating travel making them more accessible to everyone around the world. Though some events had a virtual track before it was cool, among them the DARPA Subterranean Challenge (SubT) robotics competition. Recent additions to their “Hello World” tutorials (with promise of more to come) have continued to lower the barrier of entry for aspiring roboticists.

We all love watching physical robots explore the real world, which is why SubT’s “Systems Track” gets most of the attention. But such participation is necessarily restricted to people who have the resources to build and transport bulky hardware to the competition site, which is just a tiny subset of all the brilliant minds who can contribute. Hence the “Virtual Track” which is accessible to anyone with a computer that meets requirements. (64-bit Ubuntu 18 with NVIDIA GPU) The tutorials help get us up and running on SubT’s virtual testbed which continues to evolve. With every round, the organizers work to bring the virtual and physical worlds closer together. During the recent Urban Circuit, they made high resolution scans of both the competition course as well as participating robots.

There’s a lot of other traffic on various SubT code repositories. Motivated by Bitbucket sunsetting their Mercurial support, SubT is moving from Bitbucket to GitHub and picking up some housecleaning along the way. Together with the newly added tutorials, this is a great time to dive in and see if you want to assemble a team (both of human collaborators and virtual robots) to join in the next round of virtual SubT. But if you prefer to stay an observer of the physical world, enjoy this writeup with many fun details on systems track robots.

DARPA Challenge Autonomous Robot Teams To Navigate Unfinished Nuclear Power Plant

Robots might be finding their footing above ground, but today’s autonomous robots have a difficult time operating underground. DARPA wanted to give the state of the art a push forward, so they are running a Subterranean (SubT) Challenge which just wrapped up its latest round. A great review of this Urban Circuit competition (and some of the teams participating in it) has been published by IEEE Spectrum. This is the second of three underground problem subdomains presented to the participants, six months apart, preparing them for the final event which will combine all three types.

If you missed the livestream or prefer edited highlight videos, they’re all part of DARPAtv’s Subterranean Challenge playlist. Today it starts with a compilation of Urban Circuit highlights and continues to other videos. Including team profiles, video walkthrough of competition courses, actual competition footage, edited recap videos, and the awards ceremony. Half of the playlist are video from the Tunnels Circuit six months ago, so we can compare to see how teams performed and what they’ve learned along the way. Many more lessons were learned in the just-completed Urban Circuit and teams will spend the next six months improving their robots. By then we’ll have the Caves Circuit competition with teams ready to learn new lessons about operating robots underground.

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DARPA Subterranean Challenge Urban Circuit Now Livestreaming

Currently underway is the DARPA Subterranean Challenge (SubT) systems competition for urban circuits streamed live on YouTube now through Wednesday, February 26th.

The DARPA Grand Challenge of 2004 kicked research and development of autonomous vehicles into high gear. Many components on today’s self-driving vehicles can be traced back to systems developed for that competition. Hoping to spur further development, DARPA has since held several more challenges focused moving the state of the art in autonomous robotics ahead.

To succeed in this challenge, robots must handle terrain that would confuse today’s self-driving cars. Cluttered environments, uneven surfaces of different materials, even the occasional flooded section are fair game. These robots also lose access to some of the tools previously available, such as GPS. The “systems track” denotes teams building physical robot systems versus a separate “virtual track” for simulation robots. “Urban circuit” is the second of four phases in this competition, environments of this phase are focused on man-made underground structures. (Think subway station.) For more details on this competition as well as description of various phases, see our introductory post or the competition site.

Those who rather not watch robots tentatively exploring unknown territory (and occasionally failing) may choose to wait for summaries published after competition rounds are complete. The first phase (tunnel circuit) from August-October 2019 was summarized by IEEE Spectrum here. Or you can go straight to DARPA for details on the systems track and virtual track with overall results posted on the competition site.

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Hilarious DARPA Robots Falling Video

If you’re worried about Skynet, take a quick gander at the outtakes reel (YouTube, inlined below the break) from the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) and you’ll feel a lot better. The IEEE Spectrum reporters assigned to the DRC took a break from their otherwise serious coverage and made this funny compilation of all the multi-million dollar robotic fails to go along with this article.

robot_fallingIt’s hard not to empathize with the robots, and we’ll admit that we winced a little bit with the first couple falls. (But after three or four, started breaking out in maniacal laughter.)

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DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials Day 1


Today was the first of two days of trials at the DARPA Robotics challenge at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida. Created after the Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, The robotics challenge is designed to advance the state of the art of robotics. The trials range from driving a car to clearing a debris field, to cutting through a wall. Robots score points based on their performance in the trials. Much of the day was spent waiting for teams to prepare their robots. There were some exciting moments however, with one challenger falling through a stacked cinder block wall.

Pictured above is Valkyrie from NASA JPL JSC. We reported on Valkyrie earlier this month. Arguably one of the better looking robots of the bunch, Valkyrie proved to be all show and no go today, failing to score any points in its day 1 trials. The day one lead went to Team Schaft, a new robot from Tokyo based startup company Schaft inc. Schaft scored 18 points in its first day. In second place is the MIT team  with 12 points. Third place is currently held by Team TRACLabs with 9 points. All this can change tomorrow as the second day of trials take place. The live stream will be available from 8am to 7pm EST on DARPA’s robotics challenge page.

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