NASA JPL, DARPA Partnership Demonstrates Autonomous Navigation Capabilities

The Subterranean Challenge, or SubT, is testing this kind of cutting-edge technology for space exploration – sponsored by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to develop key autonomous capabilities.

SubT is divided into four circuits spread over three years. With each, teams program their robots to navigate a complex underground course. The first contest, held last August, took place in a mine. For the most recent, called the Urban Circuit, teams raced against one another in an unfinished power plant in Elma, Washington.

Each team's robots searched for a set of 20 predetermined objects, earning a point for each find. For the Urban Circuit, CoSTAR earned 16 points; the number two team, with 11 points, was Explorer, led by Carnegie Mellon University.

CoSTAR's team lead, Ali Agha of JPL, said, "The goal is to develop software for our robots that lets them decide how to proceed as they face new surprises. These robots are highly autonomous and for the most part make decisions without human intervention."

CoSTAR, which stands for Collaborative SubTerranean Autonomous Robots, brought machines that can roll, walk or fly, depending on what they encounter.

Along the way, the bots have to map the environment and find objects like a warm mannequin that simulates a disaster survivor or a lost cellphone with a Wi-Fi signal.

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