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Flying high underground: Brisbane's driving, walking robots battle for $2m prize


A Brisbane-based robotics team is down to the last eight contestants in a global bid to win up to $2 million in prize money from the US Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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The CSIRO team, which includes its spin-off company Brisbane-based Emesent, will represent Australia – and the Southern Hemisphere – in what the science organisations said was the world’s leading robotics competition held in the United States this month.

CSIRO’s team, dubbed Data61, is part of the three-year program to push the boundaries of robotics. Emesent has developed Hovermap, which is technology based on drones that can be used in underground mining and search and rescue applications.

“Breakthroughs discovered through the DARPA Challenge have helped push real-world applications forward, including improving safety and enhanced efficiency in local mining sectors, and promising significant potential in agriculture and manufacturing,’’ CSIRO said.  

CSIRO group leader Dr Navinda Kottege said they were thrilled to be one of the final eight teams to compete.  

 “In the world of robotics, these challenges are like our Olympics,” Dr Kottege said.  

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time any Australian team has made it to a DARPA Challenge final, and we’re very proud to showcase Australia’s capabilities in this area on the world stage.”  

The six autonomous robots from CSIRO’s Data61 will need to locate and report back on items and environmental conditions throughout three underground courses built inside the Louisville Mega Cavern in Louisville, Kentucky. 

The challenges are designed to simulate real-world scenarios and involve locating models representing lost or injured humans, backpacks, or phones, as well as variable conditions such as pockets of gas. Points are awarded for correct identification and location of items, mapping the terrain, and maintaining autonomy and communications throughout.  

Emesent co-founder Dr Farid Kendoul said having a fleet of driving, walking and flying robots that were achieving complex missions autonomously and collaboratively was a major technological milestone and an important step towards using autonomous systems for saving lives and helping people.

 Professor Ronald Arkin is Director of the Mobile Robot Laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology, which helped design the team’s multi-robot task allocation system, enabling robots in the field to collaboratively decide who is best placed to perform a particular task.  

All robots were equipped with hardware designed and developed by CSIRO’s Data61, including integrated perception technology for highly-accurate mapping, localisation, object detection, multi-bot navigation, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi detection and more.  

The winner will receive $US2 million to conduct further research and development, with second place awarded $US1 million and third $US500,000. CSIRO’s Data61 placed fourth in the previous challenge to secure their place in this grand final.  


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