RCL Exclusive

Military’s Mad Scientists Want “Prometheus” Tech for Indoor, Subterranean Mapping

DARPA’s latest challenge would aid urban combat as well as search-and-rescue missions.

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For all its faults, and there are many, the 2012 film “Prometheus” did have a pretty cool piece of sci-fi technology: those little orbs that, when released, floated quickly down hallways in all directions, emitting red lasers out to the sides that allow them to remotely and automatically map the twisting interior of an immense tunnel complex.

The data was beamed back to the heroes’ operations center, where a 3-D hologram built a real-time replica of the complex, complete with location beacons for each member of the exploration party.
The idea, as shown in the film, is that someone can remotely direct members of the party through the maze that would be nearly impossible for the men or women on the ground to do on their own.

While most moviegoers may have quietly appreciated the slick, high-tech gadget before returning to their fury over the film’s unanswered questions, it appears that the military’s bleeding edge scientific wing, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was watching that part of the film especially closely.
Deep in the mountain of publicly available federal contracting documents is one that describes DARPA’s “Subterranean (SubT) Challenge”—a competition for the private sector and academia to recreate that movie magic in real life.

“Subterranean environments remain, in many ways, a hidden domain in spite of being broadly relevant across a range of military and civilian applications,” the original solicitation says. “Even under ideal conditions, these complex environments [tunnels, urban underground networks, caves] present significant challenges for subterranean situational awareness. However, in time-sensitive scenarios, whether in active combat operations or disaster response settings, warfighters and first responders alike are faced with a range of increased technical challenges, including difficult and dynamic terrains, unstable structures and obstacles, degraded environmental conditions, severe communication constraints, and expansive areas of operation.”

To solve the problem, DARPA is looking for “innovative solutions that can rapidly and remotely map, navigate, and search complex environments.” The technology will undergo grueling testing in DARPA’s own “SubT Virtual Testbed,” a “simulated environment” that will evaluate whatever technology comes to play.

“Potential representative scenarios involve rescue efforts in collapsed mines, post-earthquake search and rescue in urban underground settings, and/or cave rescue operations for injured or lost spelunkers,” the DARPA document says. “Additional scenarios include a range of military missions in which teams of systems could be sent in advance of warfighters to perform rapid search and mapping in support of follow-on operations. These scenarios present significant dangers that would preclude employing a human team, such as collapsed and unstable structures or debris, presence of hazardous materials, lack of ventilation, and potential for smoke and/or fire.”
While remotely piloted vehicles have invaded military operations and popular culture since the first armed Predator drone flights in 2001, combining that capability with the precision of real-time 3-D mapping has lagged a bit behind. But the technology is catching up.

In 2010, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania uploaded a fascinating video to YouTube showing a quad-rotor drone automatically mapping an indoor environment. In 2012, scientists at MIT developed a wireless environmental scanner. (MIT also has a “Project Prometheus” dedicated to developing technology to help map underwater environments.)

And earlier this year, the tech start-up Vtrus reportedly launched its own automated drone designed to map, monitor and help protect indoor spaces like warehouses and factories.
DARPA, however, has gone out of its way to ensure their test is just about as difficult as possible, from insanely confusing routes—“The challenge courses are expected to include features such as multiple levels, inclines, loops, dead-ends, slip-inducing terrain interfaces, and sharp turns”—to purposefully difficult barriers to normal communication links. Even more daunting: parts of it could be moving.

“Terrain features and obstacles may also include dynamic elements, which could include, e.g., mobile obstacles, moving walls and barriers, falling debris, and/or other physical changes to the environment that test the agility of the system autonomy to reason, react, and potentially recover from the possibility of a changing map,” the solicitation says.

At least a few competitors haven’t been scared off. The challenge was first announced in January and the government’s contract tracking page indicates that three contract awards from $240,000 to nearly $1.5 million have already been given out to help fund the different teams.

But the winner? They could come home with as much as $40 million. Gentlemen, start your orbs.