Happen to have an underground tunnel stretching several city blocks that’s closed off from the public and could be temporarily used for unidentified research purposes?
Great! In that case, the Pentagon would like to speak with you.
In a cryptic tweet on Wednesday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (or DARPA), the Defense Department agency that famously played a key role in creating the Internet, asked social media users if they could assist with a request.
“Attention, city dwellers! We’re interested in identifying university-owned or commercially managed underground urban tunnels & facilities able to host research & experimentation,” the post read, describing the “ideal” location as a large, “human-made underground environment” with “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.”
Included in the solicitation are several stock-like photos of darkened, cavernous areas, one of which appears to be an abandoned parking lot and another which seems like it could make a suitable fallout shelter.
The tweet also links to a Request for Information on the Federal Business Opportunities website, which functions like a Craigslist for contractors seeking to participate in various government projects. The posting is dated Aug. 20, and closes by end-of-business on Friday, meaning prospective applicants had a mere 10 days to showcase their space for the job.
A PDF file on the site contains further information ― though not much ― hinting at why DARPA suddenly shared the inquiry.
“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,” it reads. “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.”
Continuing, the description notes that the agency is looking “to rapidly map, navigate, and search unknown complex subterranean environments to locate objects of interest,” but that’s about as specific as it gets.
In a collective freakout, spooked and skeptical Twitter users attempted to reassure themselves with tweets like, “I’m sure it’s fine” and “not ominous at all.” The government’s request inevitably prompted comparisons to the underground lair in which demonic clones of humans are stowed in “Us,” the 2019 horror flick directed by Jordan Peele.
However, in a follow-up tweet on Thursday, DARPA revealed that it’s simply scoping out potential practice spots for teams competing in its Subterranean Challenge.
“We just wrapped up the Tunnel Circuit, and moving onto the Urban Circuit in Feb. 2020,” it said.
According to a webpage for the event, which kicked off in September 2018, participants from around the world are challenged to find new “approaches to rapidly map, navigate, and search underground environments during time-sensitive combat operations or disaster response scenarios.”
And the winners will see a hefty pay day. More than $5 million in prizes will be awarded to teams in various events. The next will be held in an urban area in February 2020 and then in August of that year, a cave circuit will take place, followed by a final event the year after.
In a statement to HuffPost on Friday, DARPA Communications Chief Jared Adams explained that as teams get ready for the competition, “it can be difficult for them to find locations suitable to test their systems and sensors.”
“DARPA issued this [Request for Information] in part to help identify potential representative environments where teams may be able to test in advance of the upcoming event.”