What will the future of underground navigation look like?
What will the future of underground navigation look like? darkday/CC BY 2.0

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, loves a good contest. Whether it’s an effort to design wild new robots or to more fully evolve cyber-security, the U.S. Department of Defense’s official mad science think tank regularly invites the public (well, usually private companies and universities) to come up with innovative solutions to big technical problems. Their latest competition, called the Subterranean Challenge, is taking on the problem of navigating underground spaces.

What does that mean? Thanks to the rapid urbanization taking place across the globe, according to a statement from DARPA, use of underground spaces including man-made tunnels, natural cave formations, and subterranean infrastructure is also increasing. Particularly in the context of emergency responders and military personnel, the agency says it’s identified a greater need to find new and better ways of quickly understanding these spaces, including such unique challenges as communications limitations and dangerous terrain. With the Subterranean Challenge, the agency says it hopes to solicit “new approaches to rapidly map, navigate, and search underground environments.”

For an extreme sci-fi example, consider a scene from Ridley Scott’s (unfairly maligned) Alien prequel, Prometheus. In the film, the crew discover a mysterious system of artificial corridors, and in order to map them, they toss out a few floating orbs that scan the interiors of the tunnels, creating an accurate 3D map of the space. It’s very cool, but a far cry from any technology to which we currently have access. DARPA is hoping they can inspire someone to create a technology that’s in this same spirit, but grounded in reality.

The call for applications states that the agency is looking for “multi-disciplinary teams cutting across the core systems technology areas of autonomy, perception, networking, and mobility.” The challenge is open to both DARPA-funded research teams as well as independent teams, including the public at large. Teams can compete in two different categories, the “Systems” track which focuses on hardware and physical solutions, and the “Virtual” track which is all about software solutions. The competition is planned to culminate in 2021, with a final event that will take place on a three-part course, simulating man-made tunnels, urban sub-structures, and natural caves. The winning research team has a chance to win a grand prize of over $2 million.

A graphic breakdown of DARPA's Subterranean Challenge.
A graphic breakdown of DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge. DARPA

A “proposer’s day” is scheduled to take place on January 18, 2018, with the aim of drumming up interest in the contest and getting potential teams thinking about what they might contribute. Maybe it’ll be a new type of robot or advanced radar that eventually wins the Subterranean Challenge, but whatever it is, the hope is the overall process will help to advance our ability to operate in the hidden, underground reaches of the world. Even if it can’t quite live up to the standards of science fiction.