CU researchers go deep, design drones for subterranean search and rescue challenge

Wednesday October 3, 2018 0 comments Tags: Boulder, CU Boulder, drones, Sean Humbert, Ron Rorrer, Eric Frew

BOULDER -- The race is on: Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder, University of Colorado Denver and Boston-based Scientific Systems Company have partnered to design drones that can explore underground environments like subway tunnels, mines and caves.CU_logoUSE_1  

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded the team a $4.5 million grant to support its participation in its national Subterranean Challenge, which will end in fall 2021. The partners will compete against five other funded teams across the country to complete three stages of underground search and rescue. 

Sean Humbert, a professor in CU Boulder’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, said the project will push the bounds of what autonomous systems can do. The work may one day enable teams of flying and rolling drones to work together to search through dark and dangerous environments to find human survivors of earthquakes, chemical spills and more, Humbert said. 

Humbert added that the team shows the state’s growing bonafides in the field of robotics. 

“The DARPA Subterranean Challenge was a great opportunity to pull this team together, leveraging the strengths of both campuses,” said Humbert, who is leading the project.

“It’s a great win for the state of Colorado to have two of its major campuses collaborating on this.”

“The solution DARPA wants is clearly beyond the current state-of-the-art and will require interdisciplinary and inter-organization innovation and out-of-the-box thinking,” said Ron Rorrer, professor of mechanical engineering at CU Denver.  

In September 2019, the team will kick off the competition by sending drones on a mock search and rescue operation down miles of steam tunnels. Six months later, the competing teams will graduate to large tunnels, similar to those that make up the New York subway system.

Finally, they’ll travel to natural caves, which will add a host of hazards, including mud, rocks and the potential for cave-ins. 

“The robot team needs to map the environment while searching for important markers like heat emitting from a lost person or a chemical leak,” said Eric Frew, one of the team members and a professor in CU Boulder’s Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences.

“And the entire operation has to occur autonomously with no direct input from the human operators.”

Such a feat of hide-and-seek will bring numerous engineering challenges.

To start, typical multirotor drones can only fly for 15 to 20 minutes before their batteries run out. The DARPA competition, in contrast, will require them to keep going for 2 to 3 hours. And those drones will have to communicate with each other and the surface from deep underground.

To tackle those challenges, Humbert and his colleagues brought together a diverse team of engineers. Researchers at CU Denver will focus on the power and communication challenges. The CU Boulder group will develop software and algorithms to enable the drone fleets to work together without a human controlling them. 

The CU Boulder team also includes Christoffer Heckman, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, and Christopher Williams, research professor in the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research. 

The CU Denver team also includes Associate Professors Mark Golkowski and Jaedo Park, Assistant Professors Chao Liu and Vijay Harid and Research Associate Diane Williams, all from the Department of Electrical Engineering.