LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Robotic engineers from all over the world gathered in Pennsylvania this week for a competition at an abandoned coal mine. It's called the Subterranean Challenge. And as Kathleen Davis reports from WESA in Pittsburgh, it tests robots on how well they can find objects in a disaster scenario.
KATHLEEN DAVIS, BYLINE: Team Pluto is waiting anxiously outside the cavernous mouth of a research mine. Inside is one of their four-legged robots, which is searching for objects. No team members are allowed inside the mine, so all they can do is wait for the bot to send information back to them via Bluetooth. Finally...
DAVIS: ...The robot, which looks a little like a dog, found a cellphone, earning a point for the team. Team Pluto is made up of students from the University of Pennsylvania, along with engineers from private robotics firms. It's one of 11 teams from all over the world participating in the Subterranean Challenge, held by the Department of Defense's research agency, DARPA. This circuit simulates a mine disaster scenario. The teams get points when the robots find objects like a backpack or a drill or a mannequin in mining gear named Rescue Randy. Tim Chung manages the challenge. He says the hope is that it will spur development of robots that can assist in war zones and disaster scenarios. Ideally, if a situation is dangerous, robots will be able to scope out what's happening and map out where things are. He says this would benefit EMTs, firefighters and the military.
TIM CHUNG: They're really interested in knowing where things are, whether that's hazards or fires or survivors. They really need to know relatively precisely so they're not sent to erroneous locations.
DAVIS: Future competitions in the challenge will be held in urban and cave environments so the robots will have to work in different situations. Some teams have their own ideal applications for the robots. Ali Agha is with Team CoSTAR, which has members from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They're using a fleet of wheeled robots for the competition, which can navigate uneven terrain.
ALI AGHA: One of the biggest questions for NASA is, is there life beyond our planet, right? And one of the best places to find lives are planetary caves.
DAVIS: Another reason NASA is interested - if colonization of the moon and other planets is going to happen, people would likely live in these same caves. After their run, Team Pluto's lead, C.J. Taylor, said the team was feeling pretty good about how well their robots did.
C J TAYLOR: We will continue to think and strategize and figure out what we want to do. There are places that we're doing experiments where the terrain is so treacherous.
DAVIS: This is the first of four competitions in the Subterranean Challenge, which runs through 2021.
For NPR News, I'm Kathleen Davis in Pittsburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.