Why Does Darpa Need a Huge Underground Facility by Friday?

Darpa is often described as the “mad science” wing of the Defense Department. They’re the ones who have a history of working on cutting edge technology for the military like virtual fences, disaster relief robots, and the invention of the internet itself. They even tried to build Skynet in the 1980s.

But Darpa sent out a tweet today that’s making people a little nervous. The agency wants a large underground facility for “testing” of some sort. And they need it by Friday at 5pm ET.

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Darpa explained in a follow-up tweet that the ideal location would be “several city blocks with complex layouts and multiple stories.”

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Gizmodo reached out to Darpa and the agency confirmed that the turnaround time was short, but said that it was originally posted last week. That’s still incredibly short notice for a government agency that needs a large space for its experiments. Darpa wouldn’t explain why they needed an underground facility so quickly.

“Complex urban underground infrastructure can present significant challenges
for situational awareness in time-sensitive scenarios, such as active combat
operations or disaster response,” a Darpa spokesperson who asked to remain nameless told Gizmodo by email.

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“DARPA is interested in exploring this domain for researchers to analyze and enhance approaches to improve situational awareness and response times in emergency scenarios,” the Darpa spokesperson continued. “Locations submitted could help the research community identify relevant sites for further field experimentation to accelerate their development of such technologies.”

That’s great and all. But we’re still confused. Darpa did not respond to an email with follow-up questions.

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Darpa is currently hosting the Subterranean Challenge, which is a bit like their old Robotics Challenge from 2015 only for mapping and traversing underground environments. Darpa’s “Urban Circuit” challenge is happening in February of 2020, so we can guess that this underground location might be for that, but we don’t know for sure. And it would be strange to only organize something like that on a week’s notice.

Darpa simply isn’t telling us much. In fact, Darpa is making us a bit nervous by its responses on Twitter. When someone said that the urgent need for a tunnel, “sounds both exciting and ominous,” Darpa replied, “even to us.”

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Yikes. What’s going on?

Do you know why Darpa so desperately needs a human-made underground environment for tests? Drop us a line: novak@gizmodo.com.

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Update, August 29, 2:30am ET: Dapra sent two responses yesterday to our follow-up emails, though they don’t really answer the meat of our questions.

First response:

As before, please note that I cannot go on the record as a contractor. This is a request for information to identify existing spaces. Per the announcement on the Federal Business Opportunities website, the RFI is intended solely for information and planning purposes, and does not constitute a formal solicitation for proposals. If the agency releases a formal solicitation, it will be synopsized on the Federal Business Opportunities website.

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Second response:

As noted before, I cannot go on the record, but I wanted to provide an additional bit of background to the RFI. As teams prepare for the SubT Challenge Urban Circuit, the program recognizes it can be difficult for them to find locations suitable to test their systems and sensors. DARPA issued this RFI in part to help identify potential representative environments where teams may be able to test in advance of the upcoming event.

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Gizmodo also received an angry email from Jared Adams, Darpa’s Chief of Communications, about the way we were characterizing Darpa. But perhaps the communications department should have a word with whoever controls the agency’s Twitter account. We weren’t the ones concurring that its desire for such a quick turnaround sounded “ominous.” And plenty of other news outlets seemed to think it was weird.

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About the author

Matt Novak

Matt Novak is the editor of Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog