If you’re a frequent traveler on a public transit system, it can be helpful to know when the trains or buses are arriving and if there are any delays. We might reach for a tablet to mount on the wall, but that relies on keeping the OS, the software, and its library dependancies up to date. For true reliability you’ll need to build directly in hardware, which is exactly what this map of the London tube system uses.
The base map is printed directly on PCB, with LEDs along each of the major routes to indicate the current location of the trains. A few small chips handle the WiFi connection — it appears to our eye to be an ESP8266 — and pulling the information about the trains from the London Underground API (it would be virtually impossible to build everything for this project in hardware). The hardware can be easily reprogrammed, and with the PCB layout this could be adapted for other public transit fairly easily.
Even apart from the philosophical differences on design between hardware and software approaches, we still appreciate the aesthetic of LEDs on PCB. In fact, we’ve seen a whole host of artwork on PCBs ever since the price came down dramatically in the past two decades.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.