DARPA Goes Underground For Next Challenge

We all love reading about creative problem-solving work done by competitors in past DARPA robotic challenges. Some of us even have ambition to join the fray and compete first-hand instead of just reading about them after the fact. If this describes you, step on up to the DARPA Subterranean Challenge.

Following up on past challenges to build autonomous vehicles and humanoid robots, DARPA now wants to focus collective brainpower solving problems encountered by robots working underground. There will be two competition tracks: the Systems Track is what we’ve come to expect, where teams build both the hardware and software of robots tackling the competition course. But there will also be a Virtual Track, opening up the challenge to those without resources to build big expensive physical robots. Competitors on the virtual track will run their competition course in the Gazebo robot simulation environment. This is similar to the NASA Space Robotics Challenge, where algorithms competed to run a virtual robot through tasks in a simulated Mars base. The virtual environment makes the competition accessible for people without machine shops or big budgets. The winner of NASA SRC was, in fact, a one-person team.

Back on the topic of the upcoming DARPA challenge: each track will involve three sub-domains. Each of these have civilian applications in exploration, infrastructure maintenance, and disaster relief as well as the obvious military applications.

  • Man-made tunnel systems
  • Urban underground
  • Natural cave networks

There will be a preliminary circuit competition for each, spaced roughly six months apart, to help teams get warmed up one environment at a time. But for the final event in Fall of 2021, the challenge course will integrate all three types.

More details will be released on Competitor’s Day, taking place September 27th 2018. Registration for the event just opened on August 15th. Best of luck to all the teams! And just like we did for past challenges, we will excitedly follow progress. (And have a good-natured laugh at fails.)

Living On The Moon: The Challenges

Invariably when we write about living on Mars, some ask why not go to the Moon instead? It’s much closer and has a generous selection of minerals. But its lack of an atmosphere adds to or exacerbates the problems we’d experience on Mars. Here, therefore, is a fun thought experiment about that age-old dream of living on the Moon.

Inhabiting Lava Tubes

Lava tube with collapsed pits near Gruithuisen crater
Lava tube with collapsed pits near Gruithuisen crater

The Moon has even less radiation protection than Mars, having practically no atmosphere. The lack of atmosphere also means that more micrometeorites make it to ground level. One way to handle these issues is to bury structures under meters of lunar regolith — loose soil. Another is to build the structures in lava tubes.

A lava tube is a tunnel created by lava. As the lava flows, the outer crust cools, forming a tube for more lava to flow through. After the lava has been exhausted, a tunnel is left behind. Visual evidence on the Moon can be a long bulge, sometimes punctuated by holes where the roof has collapsed, as is shown here of a lava tube northwest from Gruithuisen crater. If the tube is far enough underground, there may be no visible bulge, just a large circular hole in the ground. Some tubes are known to be more than 300 meters (980 feet) in diameter.

Lava tubes as much as 40 meters (130 feet) underground can also provide thermal stability with a temperature of around -20°C (-4°F). Having this stable, relatively warm temperature makes building structures and equipment easier. A single lunar day is on average 29.5 Earth days long, meaning that we’ll get around 2 weeks with sunlight followed by 2 weeks without. During those times the average temperatures on the surface at the equator range from 106°C (224°F) to -183°C (-298°F), which makes it difficult to find materials to withstand that range for those lengths of time.

But living underground introduces problems too.

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Living on Mars: the Stuff You Never Thought About

In The Martian we saw what kind of hacking was needed to stay alive for a relatively short while on Mars, but what if you were trying to live there permanently? Mars’ hostile environment would affect your house, your transportation, even how you communicate. So here’s a fun thought experiment about how you’d live on Mars as part of a larger community.

Not Your Normal House

Mars One living units under regolith
Mars One living units under regolith, Source video

Radiation on Mars comes from solar particle events (SPE) and galactic cosmic radiation (GCR). Mars One, the organization planning one-way trips to Mars talks about covering their habitats in several meters of regolith, a fancy word for the miscellaneous rocky material covering the bedrock. Five meters provides the same protection as the Earth’s atmosphere — around 1,000 g/cm2 of shielding. A paper from the NASA Langley Research Center says that the largest reduction comes from the top 15 to 20 cm of regolith. And so our Mars house will have an underlying structure but the radiation protection will come from somewhere between 20 cm to a few meters of regolith. Effectively, people will be living underground.

On Earth, producing water and air for your house is not something you think of doing, let alone disposing of exhaled CO2. But Mars houses will need systems for this and more.

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LEDs Strips Tell You the Trains Aren’t Running

[James] is a frequent user of the London Underground, a subway system that is not immune to breakdowns and delays. He wanted a way to easily tell if any of the trains were being disrupted, and thanks to some LEDs, he now has that information available at a glance without having to check a webpage first.

Inspired by the Blinky Tape project at FT Engineering, [James] thought he could use the same strip of addressable LEDs to display information about the tube. A Raspberry Pi B+ gathers data from the London Underground’s TfL API and does a few calculations on the data. If there is a delay, the LEDs in the corresponding section of the strip will pulse, alerting the user to a problem with just a passing glance.

The project is one of many that displays data about the conditions you’ll find when you step outside the house, without having to look at a computer or smartphone. We recently featured an artistic lamp which displays weather forecasts for 12 hours into the future, and there was an umbrella stand which did the same thing. A lot is possible with LEDs and a good API!

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Retrotechtacular: ROTOPARK is a Futuristic Parking Structure from 40 Years Ago


Pictured above is a functioning model of an automated underground parking structure which was built and used, but obviously it never caught on widely. That makes us a bit sad, as it removes the need to find an empty parking spot every time you use the garage; and having a robot park your car for you seems very future-y.

The gist of the ROTOPARK system is a carousel and elevator system for parking cars. just drive into a single-stall garage at ground level, take your ticket, and walk out the people-hole. The garage stall floor is a sled which moves down an elevator (shown as blue stalls on the left half of the image) to be stored away in the rotating carousels of cars.

Obviously mechanical failure is a huge issue here. What if the elevator breaks? Also, at times of high traffic we think getting your vehicle back out of the system would be quite a bit slower than the “static” parking garages we’re used to. Oh well, maybe some day. Check out the classic marketing video after the break which shows off the concept, construction, and use of the system.

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