Autonomous Robots Prepped For Cave Search And Rescue Mission
AppleMagazine|September 24, 2021
After practicing in a former limestone mine and an abandoned hospital outside of Pittsburgh, a fleet of robots from Carnegie Mellon University is headed to Kentucky for the final test of the ability to autonomously navigate an uncertain, underground course.

The challenge: Collect as many objects as possible in one hour while navigating a cave in Louisville, Ky.

The goal: Create autonomous robots to help with search and rescue missions for military and first responders.

The kicker: There’s only one operator and a fleet that could include a dozen robots, so the machines must be able to move and make decisions on their own.

It’s hard enough to make autonomous robots useful above ground. This CMU team is trying to do it in the depths below.

“At the heart of this challenge, it’s really a problem of exploration,” said Sebastian Scherer, the colead for CMU’s team and an associate research professor at the Robotics Institute. “You’re going into an environment that you’ve never been into, so with that comes a lot of uncertainty and the robot needs to be able to decide what do I do when I face uncertainty.”

The researchers and students at CMU partnered with Oregon State University to create their fleet, dubbed Team Explorer.

The group is competing next week for a shot at the $2 million grand prize in the final round of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge, a competition hosted by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency to develop autonomous tech that navigates underground scenarios.

DARPA has hosted similar races in the past — and CMU has made a name for itself in several competitions, ranging from those focused on self-driving technology to those developing software that helps with language translation and document understanding, said Martial Hebert, the dean of the School of Computer Science.

In 2007, a Pittsburgh team won the DARPA Urban Challenge, a race to develop a self-driving vehicle that could move through traffic, navigate intersections, merge and park. That, in turn, led to advances in the field of self-driving car research and propelled some team members to create their own companies, including Aurora and Argo AI.

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