Robots to the Rescue
Penn researchers created a fleet of robots to navigate unknown underground environments as part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Subterranean Challenge.
By Erica K. Brockmeier
Earlier this semester, a group of Penn students, postdocs, and faculty travelled to an experimental mine near Pittsburgh to participate in the first round of the Subterranean (SubT) Challenge hosted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Led by Camillo J. Taylor, researchers partnered with Penn spinoff companies to build a team of robots to navigate and explore unknown underground environments.
DARPA challenges are meant to inspire innovative solutions to complex problems, and the goal of SubT was to develop robots that could be sent into places too dangerous for humans, like a subway tunnel after a fire or a mine where workers are trapped. These robots could then send back reports on what it saw to a person who could remain in a safe location.
Members of the Pennsylvania Laboratory for Underground Tunnel Operations team, PLUTO for short, had experience working with drones in challenging settings, but going underground meant that another type of platform was needed to carry heavy equipment while navigating narrow spaces. By combining Ghost Robotics legged “dog” platforms with Exyn technologies drones, PLUTO united prior areas of expertise with the benefits of a legged system.
To traverse a mine successfully, robots need to be able to see what’s around them so they can avoid obstacles while also sharing what they see with human operators. Each dog carried a light detection and ranging device that uses laser light to create a 3D map, stereo RGB cameras to see artifacts, thermal cameras to detect heat signatures, and an onboard computer to process the data.
PLUTO’s robots also need the ability to decide where to travel next, recognize artifacts, and relay information to other dogs and to the humans outside the mine. Programs developed by Ph.D. student Anthony Cowley were used to generate a map of the robot’s location based on images collected by the sensors, while artifacts like backpacks and phones were detected using a program developed by Ph.D. student Shreyas Shivakumar.
Communication is particularly challenging underground since radio waves can’t travel through thick cave walls. PLUTO’s strategy, led by master’s student Fernando Cladera, was to create a “bucket brigade” system that allowed robots to share data with one another. That way, if a robot couldn’t get back to the entrance, the data it collected could still be relayed by other dogs to the base station.
Bringing all of these abilities together requires high-level autonomy to allow the robots to plan their exploration strategies without direct human input. Ph.D. student Ian Miller led this effort and helped make sure that all the sensors, hardware, and algorithms worked together.
PLUTO spent time at the Number 9 Coal Mine and Museum in Lansford, Pennsylvania, over the summer and at the Colorado School of Mines experimental mine earlier this year to see how their automated systems performed underground. Many months of preparation led up to the first round of the SubT challenge in August against ten other teams a test mine near Pittsburgh.
Each team completed two mine courses and had two attempts through each course to find artifacts, ranging from backpacks, cell phones, fire extinguishers, and dummy personnel, with a one-hour time limit. None of the team members was allowed to travel inside the mine, and only Miller was allowed to interact with the robots while they were collecting data.
While their robots did not spot as many artifacts as hoped, the PLUTO team is pleased with how the system performed in such challenging and unknown environments. Components that worked well include how the dogs detected and explored tunnels, their ability to recognize objects, and sharing data through the bucket brigade. Several detections were provided by “fallen” dogs, showing how their system was resilient even when individual robots took a stumble.
Adarsh Kulkarni, a master’s student who also works at Ghost Robotics, says that he’s happy with the dogs’ mechanical stability and how well they performed even after multiple falls. “This was by far the hardest we’ve run the robots and the worst environments they’ve been in,” says Kulkarni. “The mine is its own beast.”
“They took a beating every single day, and they were working the next morning,” Shivakumar adds. “That’s really commendable.”
Continue reading, and watch a video, about Team PLUTO at Penn Today.