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Team CERBERUS used several robots in the competition. The robot pictured was developed at ETH Zurich and was key to the team’s victory.

A $2 million prize for subterranean robots

Team Cerberus has won an international competition with their subterranean robots, competing against top-ranked challengers. The group is headed by an NTNU professor.

Team CERBERUS recently won a highly prestigious competition for subterranean robots. NASA and MIT were participants on other competing teams.

The DARPA Subterranean Challenge calls on teams to develop innovative robots that can explore diverse subterranean environments. This competition challenges and pushes previous technological boundaries. The prize for the winning team is $2 000 000.

“This [award] still feels absolutely incredible for us,” says Kostas Alexis, a professor at NTNU’s Department of Engineering Cybernetics. “We wanted to do well, but it ‘s hard to believe that we actually won.”

Professor Alexis received support from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to work on the project while he was still affiliated with the University of Nevada, Reno.

Team CERBERUS assembled with all the robots deployed in the competition.

International collaboration key

Professor Alexis heads up Team CERBERUS, but the victory is clearly the result of international collaboration. Team CERBERUS participants come from highly respected research institutions in different countries.

The team also includes Professor Eelke Folmer from the University of Nevada, Reno; Professors Marco Hutter and Roland Siegwart from ETH Zurich; Professor Mark Mueller from the University of California, Berkeley; Professor Maurice Fallon from the University of Oxford; Adrien Briod from Flyability; and several leaders from the Sierra Nevada Corporation.

The level of competition was very high, which is evident when you see the competitors facing Team CERBERUS. Other participants in the final round of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge were from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, CSIRO and the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Colorado.

Navigated underground

In the final round of competition, the robots had to explore underground tunnels, locate objects and report on the site.

All of the competition took place in passages that mimicked man-made underground systems, as well as natural cave passages. The robots also had to deal with extra challenges such as rough terrain and smoke. These videos give an idea of the challenges the robots encountered.

Here’s a video of the Team Cerebus robot during the competition finals.

A three-year effort

“This was the most labour-intensive project I’ve ever been involved in. We were constantly developing ideas and working across multiple research environments and geography,” says Kostas.

The project took a full three years to complete. During that time, Team CERBERUS created a whole team of robots, both legged and aerial, that are capable of exploring varied underground environments. The team had to qualify for the final round which was held last week.

Advantages for NTNU

“The prize is not surprisingly a big feather in the cap for NTNU’s Department of Engineering Cybernetics (ITK), the UAV lab at ITK and NTNU,” says Lars Struen Imsland, who is head of the department.

The event is probably the most prestigious and significant competition in autonomous systems and robotics.

“The fact that the leader of the team that won is with us at NTNU gives us great visibility in the foremost arena in this field. It will help attract students, researchers, new projects and more. Going forward, the prize will provide new opportunities, for example in combination with underwater robotics, where we’re already very strong,” says Professor Imsland.

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