How autonomous systems use AI that learns from the world around it

If a mine collapses or an earthquake strands people underground in a subway car, first responders can’t rush into that unknown subterranean environment without potentially endangering themselves.

A rescue team must ensure an area is structurally sound and air is breathable before pushing forward — ­­which sometimes means help moves slower than anyone would like.

In a competition sponsored by DARPA, teams are designing autonomous robots that can explore and map these potentially dangerous underground landscapes and also identify objects of interest to first responders like survivors, backpacks, cell phones or fire extinguishers.

“With a robot, you’re able to take much more risk and potentially move much faster in a rescue,” said Sebastian Scherer, Carnegie Mellon University associate research professor and co-leader of Team Explorer, which took first place in the initial leg of that Subterranean Challenge using Microsoft’s AirSim technology to train its robots to recognize objects in a simulated mine.