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More Robots, More Points … Team Explorer Ready for Finals After Aggressive Second Run

Team Explorer was more aggressive in their second preliminary run Wednesday.

And it paid off.

Using more robots this time, the team scored eight points during their second 30-minute run, bringing its preliminary total to 14. The team is the second seed going into Thursday's final.

"I'm pretty happy with our score," said Sebastian Scherer, a co-lead of Team Explorer. "We covered a lot of ground, and we had all the drones back in one piece, so that's exciting."

The team launched all three ground robots and two drones. One drone took off at the start gate and had a good flight into the course. The other launched from the back of a ground robot. During its flight, it scored a point when it found a rope hidden behind a shelf.

The team was ready to launch a third drone and deploy its legged robot, but time was running out. The final run is one hour long, giving Team Explorer more time to deploy more robots, explore more of the course and find more artifacts.

The SubT Challenge is a team sport. It takes a team of robots to explore course and find objects. But it also takes a human team. Designing, building and operating a fleet of autonomous robots tasked with exploring unknown, underground environments, requires team members to have specialties — drones, ground robots, autonomy, electrical and mechanical engineering, networking, communications, and more — and work together.

Once the clock starts on the run, however, the pressure falls on one person, the team's operator, Chao Cao. Cao is responsible for executing the team's strategy and scoring the team's points.

He's the only person who can communicate with robots during the run. He's the only person who can see the data, photos, videos and maps sent back. He's the only person who can take control if a robot runs into trouble. He's the only person who can submit objects to DAPRA and score points.

"I keep my focus on the things I need to do, executing our strategy and submitting artifacts," Cao said. "I don't think about irrelevant things like what could go wrong."

Cao is a Ph.D. student in the Robotics Institute and a long-time member of the team. Scherer said Cao showed a deep interest in the project and has been involved in many aspects. He keeps cool under pressure and can rattle off facts about Team Explorer's system, like the collision tolerance of the drones or the height of a ground robot, from memory.

"He wanted to do it, and I respect that," said Matt Travers, a team co-lead. "That's exactly what I'm looking for in an operator."

During the run, Cao decides when to send in the robots, a logistical dance prioritizing speed while avoiding a traffic jam. Once deployed, the robots should explore and detect objects on their own. Cao intervenes only when necessary. His main object is to score points.

"It's fun," Cao said. "It's like a video game. Deploying robots is like deploying different characters to execute tasks."

Cao isn't completely alone at the start gate. A four-person pit crew is nearby to help position robots and talk to him. And he feels the support of the entire team when he's up there.

"I'm excited to show everyone our work," Cao said.

Highlights from Team Explorer's second preliminary run will air Thursday on DARPA's SubTV starting at 2 pm EDT. The team will start its final run Thursday evening.

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