Do you like exploring underground? Then this contest is for you. The R&D arm of the US Defense Dept., The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is giving away cash prizes to those who can successfully map and navigate three different underground environments. The Subterranean Challenge (SubT) is open to teams worldwide.

Its purpose is to invigorate subsurface mapping and navigation. Overcrowded cities are beginning to spread out underground. Builders require new methods to develop such territory. First responders in turn, will need to navigate these environments quickly in a crisis. Consider the Chilean mining accident of 2010, when 33 miners were stuck underground for a total of 69 days. Such incidents could become more commonplace, if first responders don’t have the right tools and capabilities to address such a crisis.

As for security purposes, extremists like ISIS and rogue regimes like North Korea have used tunnels to evade the US military’s sensors, satellites, and other surface-bound, intelligence gathering methods. On another front, the results of the contest may help in the colonization efforts on the moon and Mars, places where a thin atmosphere offers little protection against harmful cosmic radiation.

Underground environments are notoriously unpredictable, which will give competing teams quite a challenge. Program manager Timothy Chung at the DARPA tactical technology office (TTO), said in a press release, “The DARPA Subterranean Challenge aims to provide previously unimaginable situational awareness capabilities for operations underground.”

The battle against ISIS has been particularly difficult due to their use of tunnel systems. Credit: Getty Images.

The challenge will have three components, a human-made tunnel, an urban underground space, and a network of natural caves. The goal is to stimulate innovation and help bring forth advanced technologies or develop existing ones, allowing for rapid mapping, navigation, and search capabilities in situations where time is short and environments may be too hazardous for humans to traverse. “One of the main limitations facing warfighters and emergency responders in subterranean environments is a lack of situational awareness,” Chung said, “we often don’t know what lies beneath us.”

Fred Kennedy, director of the DARPA TTO said,

We've reached a crucial point where advances in robotics, autonomy, and even biological systems could permit us to explore and exploit underground environments that are too dangerous for humans. Instead of avoiding caves and tunnels, we can use surrogates to map and assess their suitability for use. Through the DARPA Subterranean Challenge, we are inviting the scientific and engineering communities—as well as the public—to use their creativity and resourcefulness to come up with new technologies and concepts to make the inaccessible accessible.

The DARPA Subterranean Challenge explores innovative new approaches to rapidly map, navigate, and search underground environments. Credit: DARPA.

In the competition, DARPA-funded teams and self-funded ones will compete together. They can select one of two tracks or compete in both. The first is the Systems Track. Here, teams are to develop hardware and software which will be tested on an actual course. The second is a software only challenge, which will be tested on a Virtual Track.

Teams who compete in both tracks will go through three preliminary events and a final one. The final event will take place in 2021. The first circuit will focus on human-made tunnels systems, the second an underground urban environment, such as a subway system, and the third, a cave network. It won’t just be a straight shot for teams. They can expect to confront a number of different challenges in each of these environments.

The Systems Track winner will be awarded a $2 million prize, while the Virtual Track winner takes home $750,000. DARPA plans to host the Challenge Proposers Day on Jan. 18 in Arlington, Virginia. If you or someone you know is interested in the contest, you can register or find out more here. If you can't attend this event in person, you can go to a virtual one on Jan. 16. For more information on that, click here. You’d better hurry though, registration closes at 12:00 PM Eastern on January 10.

To hear more about the contest, click here: