The robots will return, DARPA vows

PRIMM, Nev.'Although no contestant got past the eight-mile marker in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's 142-mile self-navigating vehicle race, DARPA promises to hold the Grand Challenge competition again.

The second robot race will probably take place next year, DARPA director Anthony Tether said.

In the meantime, DARPA plans to talk with some of the teams that participated this year to find out more about how they put together their navigation systems, Tether said during a briefing Saturday in Primm, Nev. The agency might award small contracts to the teams to share the innovations they developed, he added.

That none of the vehicles finished the race was not a huge surprise to DARPA officials. The agency said long before the challenge took place that DOD would hold it each year until someone claimed the $1 million purse. DARPA has a four-year permit from the Bureau of Land Management to use selected portions of the land in the Mojave Desert where the race was held this past weekend.

The race is part of an effort by the Defense Department R&D agency to inspire vendors to develop unmanned ground vehicles. Congress has set a goal for DOD to make one-third of all its ground vehicles unmanned by 2015.

The race began Saturday morning outside Barstow, Calif. One by one, 13 self-directing vehicles set off to find their own way across the desert (Click for GCN.com story).

What made the race the first of its kind is that once the vehicles began their journeys, they had to find their own way to the finish line. No intervention from the teams was allowed. The vehicles were equipped with sensors, usually radar and laser-based, as well as Global Positioning System receivers. Computers on board each vehicle reconciled the sensor data with the route the teams had programmed the vehicles to take.

Some vehicles got farther than others did. But most didn't make it far from their starting gates before becoming befuddled by their surroundings. A few made enough headway that they astonished DARPA officials.

The vehicle from Carnegie Mellon's Red Team, a modified Hummer, drove itself for 7.4 miles before it got caught on a berm. Team SciAutonics' Dune Buggy got 6.7 miles before it stalled on an embankment.

The performances were 'extremely impressive,' Thomas Strat, DARPA deputy program manager for the event, said in an interview. He noted that after the first five miles the course got considerably more difficult, with steep narrow slopes and a switchback to navigate through. That the pair of vehicles made two miles into such conditions was no small accomplishment, Strat said.

The route was chosen by Sal Fish, chief executive officer and president of Score International, a Calabasas, Calif., organization that manages off-road races. He crafted the course based on its likeness to conditions the military might encounter in some deployments, such as Iraq. Although some autonomous vehicles are already in production'such as robotic lawn mowers and farm tractors'none of those machines are designed to navigate through a course this complicated.

A complete listing of how each vehicle did can be found on the Grand Challenge site.

Click to link to an interactive video presentation, "Challenge in the Desert," from washingtonpost.com's TechNews.com.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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