A team of scientists from CSIRO has made it to the final round of the world’s toughest robotics competition taking place this month.

It has prepared a fleet of six state-of-the-art robots for the Subterranean Challenge run by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Robots from competing teams, which includes scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), will need to navigate through a massive underground obstacle course in search of objects, akin to an Easter Egg hunt for advanced robots.

Dr Navinda Kottege, Group Leader and Principal Scientist at CSIRO Data61’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems Group, told Information Age the DARPA Subterranean Challenge forces teams to solve some of the most difficult problems in the already extremely complex field of robotics.

“We are not giving any prior maps or additional info about environment,” Dr Kottege said.

“First you have to locate yourself in the course, but there’s no GPS because it’s underground, so you need to map the environment and then localise yourself in the map.

“On top of that the course is filled with difficult terrain – loose rocks, stairs, ramps, platforms, ledges – and it is harsh for communications so there is no guarantee the humans, who are outside the course, can interact with the robots.”

Then there’s the machine vision problem.

Robots must find and accurately report back the location of a series of objects simulate the presence of a human in a search and rescue operation.

These objects could be backpacks, helmets, mobile phones, but they could also be thermal mannequins or enclosed areas with a high concentration of carbon dioxide.

After an hour inside the course, the team that finds the most objects wins.

The CSIRO team will deploy a fleet of six robots – two track robots, two four-legged robots, and two drones – inside the Louisana Mega Cavern where the competition takes place.

Dr Kottege said many teams are taking similar approaches when it comes to hardware, including widespread use of Boston Dynamics’s four-legged Spot robot, so he believes the CSIRO’s edge comes in the form of the science agency’s simultaneous localisation and mapping (SLAM) system, Wildcat.

“Localisation is extremely important for this competition,” he told Information Age.

“Each object the robots find needs to be localised within a five metre bubble. We’re talking about kilometre-scale distances inside the course so if your localisation is off by a fraction of a degree at the start you will only drift more and more.

“We’ve seen other teams suffer from exactly that problem; they were really good at navigation and detected more objects but score less than us because their SLAM was off.”

Cutting edge technology

Every aspect of the DARPA Subterranean challenge is designed to push the boundaries of robotics and breed innovation.

Radio communication inside the course quickly becomes nearly impossible, so the CSIRO’s robots drop small communications nodes as they venture deeper, like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, to make sure the robots can tell the humans outside where each hidden object is located.

The underground course is also massive which stretches the capacity of small drones that search up high, so the CSIRO’s two larger tank-track robots carry the other robots deeper into the course where they can be deployed.

“We have to solve so many problems in parallel, which in turn brings advances in many fronts of technology,” Dr Kottege said.

Previous DARPA challenges have done exactly this.

Its Grand Challenge, which began in 2004, invited participants to drive autonomous vehicles across the Mojave Desert and helped kickstart a whole new industry.

The Subterranean Challenge has obvious implications for emergency services and first responders who are looking to lean on robotics to do the more dangerous aspects of their work.

For Dr Kottege, this attitude explains why advancing the field of robotics serves humanity, from first responders to experts whose job it is to crawl inside and check airplane wings while they are being manufactured.

“These are people whose job it is to know that a bolt is properly placed or certain coating adequately applied to make an aircraft safe, but they have to work in these unpleasant environments, in confined spaces where they risk injury,” he said.

“If you use a robot instead, the expert can sit in a nice, comfortable air-conditioned room and access the same information without being put in harm’s way.”

The final of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge takes place from 21-23 September.

Update Monday 27 September: The CSIRO team came second in the DARPA Subterranean Challenge.