Robot rally puts the pitfalls of autonomous vehicles on display

None of the unmanned vehicles got past the eight-mile mark'most didn't travel far from the starting gate before growing befuddled by their surroundings and stalling.

Courtesy DARPA and the Army

MOJAVE DESERT, Calif.'The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency saw firsthand this month how difficult it is to make vehicles self-navigating.

None of the 13 entries that qualified for the agency's first autonomous-vehicle race got much past the starting line.

DARPA held its Grand Challenge race to push the state of the art in autonomous vehicles. Although some AVs are already in commercial production'such as robotic lawn mowers and farm tractors'the Defense Department needs vehicles that can traverse far more complicated terrain. And that requires lots of computing with smart navigation software.

The challenge route ran for 142 miles on- and off-road in the desert between Barstow, Calif., and Primm, Nev., outside Las Vegas. The terrain had obstacles such as steep slopes, sand, unpaved tracks, ridge tops, underpasses and other hindrances. Once a vehicle was set in motion, it had to find its own way to the finish line.

Most of the participating teams customized commercial vehicles such as pickup trucks and other all-terrain vehicles. All had sensors and custom software, plus Global Positioning System route data supplied by DARPA just before the race.

No contestant got past the eight-mile mark. Most didn't travel far from the starting gate before growing befuddled by their surroundings. But a few made enough headway to surprise DARPA officials, who plan to hold future Grand Challenge races, possibly as early as next year.

The vehicle from Carnegie Mellon University's Red Team, a modified Hummer, traveled 7.4 miles before it got caught on a berm. Team SciAutonics' Dune Buggy made it 6.7 miles before stalling on an embankment.

The performances were 'extremely impressive,' said Thomas Strat, DARPA deputy program manager for the event.

About the Author

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

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