On March 13, 15 experimental vehicles lurched into drive as they set off on a 142-mile race across the Mohave Desert. Although the racecourse between Barstow, Calif., and Primm, Nev., included utility roads, switchbacks, blind turns and sheer drops, no one seemed overly concerned about the drivers' well being. And for good reason. Not a single vehicle carried a driver or even a remote operating mechanism. These robotic vehicles, contestants in the DARPA Grand Challenge competition, relied on state-of-the-art autonomous navigation systems—several of which incorporated sensors from a company familiar to DC VELOCITY readers: SICK. Laser Measurement System (LMS) sensors made by the Minneapolis-based factory automation solutions specialist were used by several teams during the competition for sensing the terrain and avoiding obstacles.
In the end, not one of the robotic vehicles finished the course to claim the $1 million grand prize. In fact, none of the contestants even reached the 10-mile mark. But that was hardly the point. DARPA, which stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is a small arm of the U.S. Department of Defense devoted to the advancement of truly far-out technology. The agency, formed around the time of the 1957 Sputnik launch to maintain the U.S. military's technological superiority, funds research that it calls "high risk, high payoff" and others might call bizarre (past projects include the infamous terrorist futures market, FutureMap; the M-16 assault rifle; and an aircraft powered solely by a fuel cell). Whatever the outcome of the race, DARPA gets first crack at the innovative technologies unveiled. Anything from a navigation system to an alternative fuel source could someday wind up in robotic vehicles used in military reconnaissance and surveillance missions.
So what happens now? DARPA says it will run the Grand Challenge for Autonomous Ground Vehicles approximately annually until there is a winner, or until the congressional authority to award the cash prize expires (currently in 2007). Or it could always cut the course to five miles.