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The Pentagon's $82 Million Super Bowl of Robots


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A CERBERUS robot navigates the cavern during the DARPA Subterranean Challenge.

The DARPA Subterranean Challenge was a major test of the proposition that someday teams of robots could help first responders assess disaster zones before risking human lives.

Credit: Jon Cherry

One afternoon in late September, a yellow four-legged robot called Spot pranced and pirouetted on a replica of a dingy subway platform that had been constructed inside a vast limestone cavern burrowed beneath the Louisville Zoo. Spot snooped around the platform, inhaling data through cameras and sensors arrayed on its vacuum-cleaner-size torso. The robot's little feet kept darting perilously close to the edge of the platform, then back to safety. Finally, apparently satisfied by what it had learned, Spot nimbly descended a staircase to make further investigations on the track bed. Back on the now-deserted platform, a poster on the wall declared: "The Future Is Now."

And what a future. In this scenario, meticulously constructed for the finale of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge — an elaborate three-year, $82 million Pentagon robotics competition — something bad has happened to humans underground, and the robots are coming to the rescue. Spot and its robo-teammates and competitors — dozens of walking, driving and flying robots — were on a scavenger hunt for "survivors" (mannequins giving off body heat and vocal sounds) and objects such as cellphones, backpacks and helmets. The robots scored points by sending the objects' locations back to their human teammates. Finding all the objects meant exploring a trap-filled labyrinth with a half-mile of passages, featuring three made-from-scratch environments: urban, with a subway, storeroom and offices; a tunnel (a mock mine shaft); and a cave, a claustrophobic mash-up of spelunking's greatest hits.

From The Washington Post Magazine
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