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DARPA challenge accepted

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The Emesent Team is off to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to compete in the DARPA SubT Challenge

A team of Emesent researchers and engineers are heading over to Pittsburgh to participate in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Subterranean Challenge. They will be joining team mates from CSIRO’s Data61 and Georgia Tech to compete against the World’s best in subterranean mapping and autonomy. 

The challenge? 

Deploy a team of autonomous robots to explore an underground mine, find items of interest and accurately report the location of the items. All with just a single person on the surface guiding the robots by sending high-level commands. The robots will face challenging terrain, physical obstacles, darkeness, dust, smoke, and other hazards – just like they would face in a real-world search and rescue or military exercise. 

The Tunnel Circuit is the first of three circuits in which teams will test their systems and sensors in physical, representative subterranean courses. Following the Tunnel Circuit is the The Urban Circuit which takes place in February 2020, followed by the Cave Circuit in August 2020. All three subdomains will be incorporated as The Final Event in August 2021, pushing contestants and their robots even further than they knew was possible. 

Why was the DARPA SubT Challenge launched?

DARPA has earned a reputation for setting extreme challenges that push the boundaries of robotics, AI and other technologies. The DARPA Grand Challenge series spearheaded the development of autonomous car technology back in 2004 and this has lead to the driverless car boom that we see today. 

The DARPA SubT challenge was born from the need for better situational awareness in diverse subterranean operating environments including tunnels, urban underground and cave networks. These environments are often too hazardous to send people into, so a team of robots is the logical alternative. However It’s a tough and hazardous environment for a robot too, especially since there is no GPS to rely on for navigation. 

The SubT Challenge will no doubt be just as challenging as previous DARPA Challenges and will boost the development of systems capable of exploring the underground world. It will certainly push teams to create novel approaches and technologies that will in turn allow warfighters and first responders to rapidly map, navigate and search dynamic underground environments. There is over $5 million up for grabs in prize money but for most participants it’s more about the prestige of winning such an event. Even just being selected to participate is an honour given that hundreds of teams apply from around the world. 

The Emesent Team

Emesent has been developing and commercially deploying autonomous drones capable of exploring and mapping underground mines since 2017 and is regarded as a world leader in this space. This is enabled through our Hovermap LiDAR mapping and autonomy payload which is mounted to a drone to provide these advanced capabilities. When the SubT challenge was announced we saw it as the perfect opportunity to further develop our capabilities and prove these on the global stage.  

The demands of the SubT Challenge circuits are such that a drone-only approach would not be suitable. We therefore teamed up with CSIRO’s Data61 Robotics and Autonomous Systems Group who are World leaders in autonomous ground vehicles, GPS-denied navigation and mapping. Adding to the mix are experts in multi-robot coordination and planning from Georgia Tech. Together this trio represents a very strong team which is certainly up to the challenge. 

The team of Data61 ground robots and Emesent’s Hovermap-enabled drone will be deployed together into the Tunnel Circuit. They will work together to build a common map of the environment and use onboard cameras to identify items such as fire extinguishers, backpacks and people. 

Besides the thousands of hours of autonomous flights that have been accumulated in mines during testing and commercial deployment of the Hovermap-enabled systems, the Emesent team have also been preparing in a Data61 test environment in Brisbane. This 200m tunnel course has allowed the Emesent and Data61 teams to work side-by-side in a realistic test environment without having to travel to a mine. 

When asked about his approach to the challenge, Co-Founder and CTO of Emesent Farid Kendoul stated:

There is definitely excitement in the air and with only days to go now, the Emesent team has “tunnel vision”  as they prepare to successfully complete the DARPA SubT challenge.