Student Tunnel Detection Robots Challenged at IEEE Region 5 Autonomous Robot Competition

By Dr. Mike Mattice, Denver IEEE Robot Committee Chair

On a hot day in August, 2010, Dr. Mike Mattice and a coworker, outfitted in body armor on the Egypt side of the Gaza border, found themselves trying to motivate an Egyptian soldier to properly carry a tunnel detection instrument along a flagged grid. Slightly frustrated, Dr. Mattice muttered, “A robot could do this.” This and many other worldwide tunnel experiences led Mike to incorporate simplified tunnel features into the competition that is known today as the annual IEEE Region 5 Autonomous Robot Competition.

This year’s IEEE Region 5 Autonomous Robot Competition was held on April 1, 2017, at the 12,000-square foot Denver Marriott Tech Center. Designed to award points in many of the technical areas required in real life operational tunnel detection, the competition drew 28 university undergraduate robotics teams who designed unique robots to detect and map covert tunnels and hidden caches within.

Subsurface features included electrified light cables, solid steel winch cables and dead ends that were still “under construction” with no infrastructure. Each round became more challenging; dead ends were added, and finally in round three, surface obstructions were added. Autonomous navigation was necessary to plan a search pattern with respect to a geographic reference, present the tunnel map with respect to the reference, and return to the reference point. Points were incrementally awarded to reflect the increasing challenge. There were many opportunities for sensor development and “hacking” of home improvement tools for finding studs and live wires. In addition to sensors for tunnel detection and mapping, the students needed to avoid obstacles and open hidden caches to record the contents. There were also multidisciplinary engineering opportunities for gripper design and image processing.

The competition field construction, nearly two years of planning and competition execution was accomplished by Denver volunteers and generous donations from Inuktun Services Limited, Crystal Cam Imaging Inc. (formerly Recce Robotics International Inc.), Schnabel Engineering, Asymmetric Technologies, and the Arapahoe Library Makerspace. The Association of Old Crows – Denver donated food gift cards for all students and SparkFun donated great products for a lunchtime raffle. The first five winners shared $2,900 in cash prizes supplied by IEEE Region 5. Congratulations to all the participants of the IEEE Region 5 Autonomous Robot Competition; the teams can be found here.

Back in March, 2005, when detainees completed a tunnel at Camp Bucca, the US government had no engineering method for finding tunnels and less than a handful of engineers with any ideas. Fast forward to today, it is safe to say over 100 future engineers are aware of the challenges and potential solutions associated with the very difficult problem of covert tunnel detection.