DARPA digs into underground mapping

The research arm of the Defense Department looks to a Colorado mine for next leg of its tunnel mapping tech challenge.

By Alexander Herasymchuk shutterstock ID 1012152361

Nine teams, armed with robots, tracking software and systems will descend on an old Colorado mine for the next leg of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's competition to develop technology to find and map subterranean passages and infrastructure.

The teams, made up of commercial technology companies and research universities, will participate in DARPA's SubT Integration Exercise, known as STIX, using robotics, sensors and communications solutions, in the Edgar Experimental Mine in Idaho Springs, Col., in April.

The event, the research agency said in a Jan. 22 statement, is part of the preparation for SubT's Circuits Stage Challenge set for later this year and next. The agency kicked off the challenge in late 2017 along parallel research tracks: the hardware-focused systems track and the software-focused virtual track.

The circuits divvy up testing in operational environments. The Tunnel Circuit is slated for this coming August, the Urban Circuit competition is scheduled for Feb, 2020 and the Cave Circuit will happen in August, 2020. SubT's final event in August 2021 will incorporate elements of all three environments.

Last September, the agency began selecting vendors and participants for its tunnel challenge, with a competitor's day in the Louisville Mega Cavern, a 100-acre manmade limestone cave.

In a final event, competitors will chase millions of dollars in awards. Teams on the systems track could win up to $2 million, while teams on the virtual track could get $1.5 million in winnings.

Tunnel detection and mapping is becoming a critical capability for the U.S. military as well as the Department of Homeland Security. According to the Science and Technology directorate at DHS, finding illicit tunnels and underground passages along the Southern border is largely based on "random tips and laborious human intelligence" and not on detection technology.

S&T is currently working on its own technologies to counter an increasing number of tunnels dug by transnational crime organizations smuggling drugs under the Southern border.

The Defense Department's efforts are aimed at developing tunnel detection and mapping capabilities to support in its mission in Afghanistan. Civilian border agencies, such as Customs and Border Protection, have harnessed other technologies developed in conflict zones by the DoD for border security operations.