See Inside DARPA's Incredible Subterranean Finals Course

IEEE Spectrum

When DARPA announced that the Subterranean Challenge Final Event would take place in a giant cavern complex in Louisville, and that it would include elements of tunnels, caves, and the urban underground, we had very high hopes for what the agency would put together. And, predictably, DARPA vastly exceeded those hopes. Inside of the Louisville Mega Cavern, DARPA worked for months to construct an incredible course from scratch, full of the kind of detail that you’d expect to see on a movie set. But just like a movie set, it was all temporary, and even worse, very few people will ever be able to really appreciate what DARPA has done—the course was never open to the public, and most of the teams themselves only really experienced the course through their robots and during a very brief post-competition tour.

After the competition ended on Friday, though, DARPA did give any teams that were interested an opportunity to run their robots around the course for a couple of hours. We were able to tag along with Team CERBERUS and Team CSIRO Data61, the first and second place SubT Challenge winners (separated in score by just one single minute!), as they and their robots explored the course in person and unsupervised for the first (and last) time.


As you look through these pictures, try to appreciate everything that DARPA has done to make the SubT Final course as realistic as possible. Everything was designed and built and sculpted and painted entirely by hand, based on real underground environments. DARPA also added an assortment of robot-specific challenges for both perception and mobility, which had a side-effect of making some parts of the course challenging for humans to traverse as well. Inside, it was often very dark, very close, and frequently slippery and wet. I was thankful both for my hard hat and for the well-lit robots that I followed around the course with their teams of human operators as we explored DARPA’s fantasy subterranean world.

A scaffolding with DARPA banners outside of the entrance to a cave

Four yellow quadrupedal robots standing with a group of humans

Drones sitting on the ground with very bright lights

Roboticists in a cave adjusting electronics on wheeled and legged robots

Two yellow quadrupedal robots lying down with roboticists in the background

Roboticists carry a yellow legged robot up a ramp onto the back of a trailer

A large cave with a stage and a stone portal on one side, dramatically lit

Two roboticists crouch over a red quadrupedal robot in the dark, one holds a flashlight

Three red quadrupedal robots stand still as two roboticists check their lights

Two roboticists watching three large wheeled robots with bright lights

Two roboticists and two red quadrupedal robots watch as a third robot walks forward

A red quadrupedal robot with a bright light walks into a dark cave entrance

A red quadrupedal robot in a cave walks past a drill on a wall and a sign that says "danger enter at your own risk"

A red quadrupedal robot walks down a mine tunnel as two roboticists look on

A red quadrupedal robot walks past a wall of brightly colored graffiti that reads "SubT Urban Circuit"

A red quadrupedal robot with a bright light explores a dark cave environment

A roboticist looks at data on a laptop in a cave lit with a red light

A legged robot inside of a dark and flowing stone cave

A robot on a ledge inside of a large dark cave

A red legged robot walks past rows of cluttered shelving

A cork board with papers stapled to it showing drawings of Minecraft monsters

Two roboticists look at data on a laptop as a quadrupedal robot lights up a cave in the background

A red quadrupedal robot stands directly in front of a crouching human recording it with a cell phone in a dark cave

A drone with a bright light sits on a dark subway platform with a group of roboticists behind

Two streaks of light illuminate a large dark cave

A drone with a bright light hovers in a long hallway with white walls

Two roboticists covering their ears watch a drone through a doorway next to a closet with yellow safety vests and blue helmets hanging on pegs

A drone hovers close to the ground, almost touching a roboticist wearing a hard hat ducked down next to it

Inside of a large cave a tunnel made of shipping containers stretches along one wall

An orange legged robot stands in front of a poster that reads "The Future is Now"

Special thanks to Team CERBERUS and Team CSIRO Data61 for letting me tag along with them.

Last week, DARPA also posted some videos of the course, including walkthroughs with artifact placements and also remote footage of all of the final competition runs. We’ve included a couple below, but the rest can be found on DARPA’s YouTube channel.


Source: IEEE Spectrum

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