Czech engineers developing robot for million dollar competition in Louisville Mega Cavern


Engineers at the Czech Technical University in Prague are customising a Boston Dynamics-built robot with which they hope to win an upcoming competition in the United States. The contest, organised by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will take place inside a huge underground complex in Kentucky.

A robotic dog called “Spot” is currently wandering the halls of the Czech Technical University. It is one of the cutting-edge mobile robots developed by the famous Massachusetts robotics company Boston Dynamics. The agile machine walks on four legs at a speed of 5 km/h and can easily overcome obstacles in difficult terrain, open doors or walk upstairs.

Tomáš Rouček | Photo: Ondřej Vaňura,  Czech Radio

Engineers from the university’s Faculty of Electrical Engineering have been working on customising the base design since May, says Tomáš Rouček, one of several PhD students working on the project.

“We have added some extra cargo that enables us to process more information gathered by the robot on our computers. It includes a graphics card, a small computer with a processor, as well as several cameras which can identify not just people but also devices such as phones or fire extinguishers underground. We use a Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) sensing method that enables the robot to move and map underground spaces autonomously.”

Spot | Photo: Ondřej Vaňura,  Czech Radio

The aim of the faculty team is to create a machine that can win DARPA’s prestigious Subterranean (SubT) Challenge this September. As Tomáš Rouček explains, the competition takes place in underground spaces.

“In the DARPA SubT Challenge, you get 60 minutes to search for various objects within a huge underground area. No people are allowed inside, only autonomous robots that can be controlled by a single individual. Last time, the challenge took place inside a nuclear power plant.”

This year the challenge will take place in the Louisville Mega Cavern in Kentucky. The best performing team in the Systems Competition will receive a USD 2 million prize from DARPA.

The Czech Technical University plans to send around 20 people to Kentucky for this year’s competition. According to team leader Tomáš Svoboda, it is a great honour for any engineer to compete in a DARPA contest.

Spot | Photo: Ondřej Vaňura,  Czech Radio

“If your CV says that you took part in the DARPA SubT Challenge, it is equivalent to having worked for Apple or Google. It’s something that anyone can be proud of for a very long time.”

Competing with engineers sent out by institutions such as NASA, MIT, Oxford or Switzerland’s ETH, the Czech Technical University team managed to win third place at the previous SubT Challenge. Their successes earned them a USD 1.5 million DARPA subsidy for further development autonomous robot systems. This enabled the faculty to purchase Spot.

To simulate the conditions inside the Louisville Mega Cavern, the Czech team has been training in areas such as the Býčí skála Cave in Moravia – the second-longest cave system in the country. In August, they will practise inside Dobrošov Fortress, which was part of the border defence systems built by the Czechoslovak First Republic before World War II.