Uncle Sam Wants You(r tunnels)

The Defense Department says underground passages can aid disaster response and combat operations
By: | September 4, 2019
One of the many tunnels running beneath Concordia University.

Maybe you saw the late-August notice on Twitter or another social media platform The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Defense Department group that famously played a key role in creating the internet, issued an unusual request for underground tunnels to use for research—as soon as possible.

Attention, city dwellers!” the Twitter note began. “We’re interested in identifying university-owned or commercially managed underground urban tunnels & facilities able to host research & experimentation. The ideal space would be a human-made underground environment spanning several city blocks w/ complex layout & multiple stories, including atriums, tunnels & stairwells. Spaces that are currently closed off from pedestrians or can be temporarily used for testing are of
interest.”

Readers were directed to a Request for Information form where they learned that the tunnels should be “available to support research and experimentation associated with ongoing and future research initiatives.”

Why universities?

Universities are identified in the DARPA note because many of them, especially up north, have networks of tunnels.

Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, for example, has tunnels that connect 20 of its 22 academic buildings allowing for easy passage during bad weather or for disabled individuals.

Concordia University Wisconsin, on the shore of Lake Michigan, has about four miles of underground tunnels and hallways to protect against snow and wind chills that bring temperatures down to minus 25 degrees in the winter. The tunnels were added when Concordia purchased the campus, a former convent, in 1982.

Columbia University has an extensive tunnel system connecting most buildings on campus and acting—as do other systems—as a conduit for steam, electricity, telecommunications and other infrastructure.

Yale University, no stranger to secretive and mysterious locations (think Skull and Bones), has an underground labyrinth connecting the buildings on its central campus. The network connects all residential college basements as well as the steam tunnels.

What does DARPA want with tunnels?

According to an information sheet attached to DARPA’s Request for Information form, “The subterranean domain—whether human-made tunnels, urban underground infrastructure, or natural cave networks—is becoming increasingly relevant for global security and disaster-related search and rescue missions. As such, DARPA is interested in understanding the state-of-the-art in innovative technologies that have the potential to disruptively and positively impact how the underground domain is leveraged without prohibitive cost and risk to human lives.”

As DARPA revealed in subsequent postings, the request ties into DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge, or SubT, which aims to create and use new technologies to assist in searching, mapping and navigating underground spaces.

Also read: Navigating the campus underground

“In time-sensitive scenarios, such as active combat operations or disaster response settings, warfighters and first responders face increased technical challenges including difficult terrain, unstable structures, degraded environmental conditions, severe communication constraints, and expansive areas of operation. For these reasons, natural cave networks, human-made tunnels, and urban underground environments have consistently played a central role in historical warfare and military operations.”

Tim Goral is senior editor.