Can Robots Take The Place Of First Responders When Danger Strikes?

Top robotics engineers are gathering in the week ahead to push the envelope on what’s possible with robots for underground search-and-rescue missions, military reconnaissance and scientific exploration, thanks to a federal agency known as DARPA.


Formally known as the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, it will host a robotics competition that includes eight teams from leading universities and research labs. The DARPA Subterranean Challenge — known as SubT for short — is taking place Sept. 21-24 in Louisville, Ky., at the Louisville Mega Cavern, a former limestone mine that spans about 100 acres.

The DARPA Subterranean Challenge is seeking new ways to rapidly map, navigate and search difficult underground environments during time-sensitive combat operations or disaster response scenarios. The robots will look for trapped survivors, invisible gas, cellphones, backpacks, and other items during the competition. Robots can venture into places that are too dangerous or inaccessible for people.

The teams compete for $3.5 million in prizes and a chance to advance the robotics field. The team that finds and identifies the most items in the shortest time frame wins $2 million for first place. Second place gets $1 million while third place rings up $500,000.

Eventually, it could open up new revenue streams for a number of technology companies.

“The near-term focus of the SubT Challenge is to illuminate the diversity of technologies that are on the cusp of having a major impact in the field and to plant the seeds for future innovations,” Timothy Chung, a program manager at DARPA’s tactical technology office, told Investor’s Business Daily.

How Other DARPA Competitions Created Innovations

Previous DARPA competitions helped spur technologies now being used for self-driving cars and trucks.

The Economist recently called DARPA the agency “that shaped the modern world.” It noted that DARPA can claim at least partial credit for such innovations as weather satellites, GPS and drones. The same goes for stealth technology, voice interfaces, the personal computer and the internet, plus Moderna‘s (MRNA) Covid-19 vaccine.

The SubT event also allows makers of lidar sensors to show off their products in a nonautomotive application. Competitors in the event are using sensors from Velodyne Lidar (VLDR), Ouster (OUST), RoboSense, SICK and more.

Two of the teams are self-funded while the others are getting financial aid from DARPA. A few teams have so many corporate partners that their robots look like Nascar vehicles with all their company logos.

Robots Get Corporate Sponsors

For instance, the Costar robot led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has 17 sponsors. They include Arch Resources (ARCH), Intel (INTC), Nvidia (NVDA), Velodyne and Waymo, a division of Google parent Alphabet (GOOGL).

The team led by Carnegie Mellon University has 15 sponsors. They include Amazon (AMZN) unit AWS RoboMaker, Boeing (BA), CNH Industrial (CNHI), Honeywell (HON), Microsoft (MSFT), Schlumberger (SLB) and Teledyne Technologies (TDY) unit Flir.

Teams in the DARPA event have been involved in three preliminary events over the past two years. That included competitions in tunnels, caves, and urban environments. The systems competition in Louisville is the final event in the SubT Challenge.

Complex underground settings represent challenges for military and civilian first responders in the case of an emergency, Chung said. Those challenges include difficulty communicating through walls or rock. There’s also the potential for unseen dangers like unknown spilled hazardous material deep inside the rescue area.

“Being able to get the lay of the land before you send in personnel is critical in security and warfighting functions,” Chung said. For instance, robots can alert rescue crews to whether they need breathing devices and structural shoring equipment.

Future Robots For Infrastructure Inspections

Applications for the technology being tested are numerous, Chung said. For instance, future robots likely will do inspections of tunnels, bridges and other infrastructure, he said.

The SubT robots have sensors for visual perception. They also can detect gases, thermal signatures, sound and radio frequencies from electronic devices.

Some of the robots in the DARPA competition will carry aerial drones on their backs. DARPA calls these combinations marsupial robots.

Further, 12 additional teams are vying for $1.5 million in prize money in a virtual competition. This competition will test software and algorithms for robots in simulations of environments.

Follow Patrick Seitz on Twitter at @IBD_PSeitz for more stories on consumer technology, software and semiconductor stocks.


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