There's a very intriguing story that's (back) in the news, according to the following article shared by A.S., and that's DARPA's (the Diabolically Apocalyptic Research Project Agency's) robotic underground challenge:
You may recall this competition, for another on was held last year; I blogged about it. But in this competition, the robots have to negotiate a much more complex underground environment:
The Urban Circuit of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge is the second of four robotics competitions that send teams of state-of-the-art robots into challenging underground environments in an attempt to seek out artifacts while creating detailed maps. Last August, the robots explored a man-made tunnel system in the NIOSH research mine near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And starting this Thursday, the teams will be taking on the urban underground, at Satsop Business Park in Elma, Wash.
DARPA’s intention is that the Urban Circuit “will represent human-made urban environments such as municipal infrastructure and mass transit.” We’d sort of figured that they’d choose a subway station, mostly because they’ve been using subway station graphics on the SubT website. But DARPA has chosen Satsop Business Park (just to the west of Olympia, Wash.) as the location for the event, and it’s much more of an industrial-y looking place.
Something in particular to look out for in the Urban Circuit is verticality: Things like stairs, ladders, ledges, and holes in the ground and ceiling that need to be explored or traversed. The Tunnel Circuit didn’t really have that; there may have been one or two optional holes, but nothing that robots were required to deal with in order to make progress. We’re expecting that verticality will be a much more significant (i.e. mandatory) part of the Urban Circuit, which will definitely add some risk. And some drama!
A key thing to remember is that all teams are allowed to do is push their robots through the entry to the Urban Circuit course, and after that, they can’t touch them. Once the robots move out of communications range, they’re completely on their own, operating fully autonomously without any human input at all.
During the Tunnel Circuit, teams tried a variety of very creative ways to keep in touch with their robots, both to give them high-level instructions and to get back artifact coordinates to score points. We’re expecting even more autonomy for the Urban Circuit, as teams have refined their communications strategies over the past six months.
New to the Urban Circuit are two different artifacts: gas, and vent. They replace the drill and fire extinguisher artifacts from the Tunnel Circuit.
Needless to say, all this has my high octane speculation antennae pulsing with suspicion, and my suspicion meter has been in the red zone on this one ever since the first contest was announced. After all, DARPA's real name - the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - casts the shadow of military purpose over everything it does. That in turn raises the question of why this capability is being developed. For last year's contest, I speculated that it might be to develop a capability to explore natural underground cavern and cave systems or installations, particularly if they were on other planets, for the addition of an underground "space robot capability" would drastically enhance the exploratory suites of planetary probes. And it is interesting that this story comes out in the context of several stories about space recently.
But there's another context that's very intriguing in this connection, and it has my high octane speculations running in entirely different directions. Recall that many months ago the American military announced that it wanted to develop new operational doctrines and tactics for human soldiers to fight underground, precisely in the sorts of environments DARPA's contest is taking place in. The choice of subways, with stairs and so on, and as the article points out, vertical components, like ventilation and elevator shafts, or perhaps even missile silos, is an indicator that something is up. The search for "artifacts" - including "gas elements" - could easily be seen as a thinly disguised search for "booby traps" in such underground environments, such as the SS planted in those large underground installations in Germany during the Second World War, many of which, incidentally, have never been completely explored to this day. So one possibility might be the exploration of "hostile archaeological sites", ancient or modern.
That possibility raises yet others, and since we're already out on the end of the speculation twig, we might as well step off the twig altogether: the development of such a capability might also be a means to explore how to defend against robotic explorers. Additionally - and here's the biggest whopper of them all - the development of this capability might be precisely to go exploring the underground installations of some "breakaway group", let's say, a group of corporations that have developed an enormous and secret underground installation infrastructure, and are no longer so open to the prying eyes of any government(s) they might ostensibly serve coming to inspect them.
In other words, might we be looking at a response, rather than at a projection of war fighting requirements and proof of concepts for them?
That's a whopper of a question, I grant you, and in this case, time - and any future revelations from DARPA's contests - might tell.
See you on the flip side...
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