Wyatt Kash | R&D, DARPA style

Editor's Desk | Commentary: DARPA's projects show the often immeasurable value of investing in technology research

Wyatt Kash

Back in March 2004, when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency held its first Grand Challenge, 15 driverless vehicles, relying on sensors, positioning systems and a little luck, attempted to navigate a 142-mile desert course. None of the vehicles made it faurther than eight miles.

The exercise was more than a technology competition for enterprising engineering teams. Congress expects one-third of the armed forces' ground combat vehicles to be unmanned by 2015.

Things took a leap forward the following year. Four autonomous vehicles finished another desert circuit successfully, including Stanley, a vehicle engineered by a Stanford University team. Stanley completed the 132-mile challenge in just six hours, earning its designers a $2 million prize and the attention of technology enthusiasts all over the world.

This year, 53 teams have been preparing entries for the most difficult Grand Challenge yet, as the robotic race moves from the desert to city streets.

The challenge, scheduled for Nov. 1, is daunting indeed. Vehicles will need sophisticated sensors and high-powered software to not only steer clear of urban obstacles but also to respond to the unpredictable behavior of other vehicles.

The DARPA program has had challenges of its own. Last year, tight budgets and a defense spending bill signed by President Bush forced DARPA to strip away the contest's cash prizes. Fortunately, Defense Department officials wisely found a way to restore the prize money. DARPA expects to pay out $2 million to the winner, $1 million for second place and $500,000 for third.

In a world where huge investments are risked each year researching and developing unproven ideas, that prize money is a smart investment. It attracts the kind of imagination that would otherwise cost taxpayers billions of dollars. By creating the right circumstances ' where bright people in academia and the private sector have an incentive to contribute and test nascent ideas, and yes, earn some prize money ' DARPA continues to be one of government's great models for fostering breakthrough technologies.

The Grand Challenge is just one of many programs promoting technology innovation in government, as GCN reports this issue. But with billions of dollars earmarked for future development of unmanned ground vehicles, a lot is riding on this year's contest.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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