CU team awarded $4.5 million to build drones

The combined CU team is set to compete in the DARPA subterranean challenge. Photo: Marianna Caicedo· The Sentry

CU Denver Mechanical Engineering students Austin Boyd and Kyle Megna. 
Photo: Marianna Caicedo· The Sentry
CU Denver partners with CU boulder in new challenge

CU Denver and CU Boulder researchers have collaborated with Scientific Systems Company, Inc. (SSCI), a Boston-based tech company, to design drones that would help expand exploration of subterranean environments, including caves, human-made tunnels, and mines. To help in the efforts of building these underground drones, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded CU’s team with a $4.5 million grant that is intended to help support the team’s participation in the national Subterranean Challenge that is held by DARPA.

During DARPA’s challenge, CU’s team will compete against six other teams: Carnegie Mellon University, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, iRobot Defense Holdings Inc. doing business as Endeavor Robotics, University of Nevada, University of Pennsylvania, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 

As the challenge progresses, each of the teams will compete in three different underground challenges that become increasingly difficult. Each challenge will explore some of the difficulties of operating in a specific underground environment. In the first challenge, the teams will focus on human-made tunnel systems; in the second, teams will focus on underground urban environments, such as underground transit; finally, the third will focus on natural caves.

The challenge hopes to find new ideas and technology to help people better understand subterranean environments. “The idea comes from a need to be able to perform search and rescue in underground environments that may be too dangerous or difficult to access for humans,” Mark Golkowski, an associate professor of electrical engineering at CU Denver, said.

On DARPA’s YouTube video talking about the Subterranean Challenge, Timothy Chung, who is a program manager in the Tactical Technology Office at DARPA, said, “Underground settings are becoming increasingly relevant to global security and safety. Rising populations and urbanization drive the demand not only to build up but also to build down requiring first responders to perform their duties underground. In many ways, subterranean environments have remained an untapped domain in terms of developing breakthrough technology for national security.”   

When talking about the mechanics and how an underground drone might work, Golkowski said, “Drones operating underground need to be more advanced, because they cannot use GPS technology to navigate and find their way around. They need additional sensors to not crash into walls and make their own maps as they move through an unknown environment. Underground operation also requires power sources that work for longer than a typical battery. Furthermore, wireless communication underground is a challenge, and special techniques need to be used to send messages and information.”

“Underground drones will give first responders first-hand information about an environment prior to sending a human being into potentially dangerous situations,” Chad Renick, a CU Denver graduate student who works with the CU team in building the underground drones, said. “This information could include maps with the fastest route to a target or alerts about dangerous conditions. This would allow first responders to perform risk assessment and prepare accordingly prior to a rescue mission.”

During the time span of three years, CU Boulder, CU Denver, and SSCI will be working on developing the underground drones up until the final event, which is planned to take place in the fall of 2021.

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