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DARPA will hold its Grand Challange for UGVs again next month.

Courtesy of DARPA

DOD moves, gradually, to put unmanned vehicles on the road

Rumbling along a dusty road in the Iraq desert, two dozen trucks are loaded with food and water for soldiers stationed in a remote town.

Suddenly an explosion erupts from a bomb hidden on the road, disintegrating the first truck. The convoy pauses a few seconds, then drives around the wreckage to complete the mission.

No chaos erupts because nobody has been hurt or killed. The convoy is made up enitrely of unmanned ground vehicles.

The kind of lifesaving technology in that scenario'years from being deployed'is a goal of the Defense Department's unmanned ground vehicles program, Charles Shoemaker, the Army Research Laboratory's chief of robotics, said at a recent demonstration of the vehicles.

Using Stryker eight-wheeled armored vehicles, General Dynamics Corp. officials recently demonstrated the developing technology. The autonomous vehicles can be assigned a mission and keep troops out of harm's way.

The demonstration was held in Westminster, Md., where General Dynamics broke ground recently on a 150,000-square-foot manufacturing facility where the unmanned machines will be built someday.

While unmanned aerial vehicles have been used for years'and are widely deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan'unmanned ground vehicles still need development, said Scott Myers, president of General Dynamics Robotic Systems.

'We're probably two to three years away, relative to where the unmanned aerial vehicles world is,' Myers said. 'In a lot of ways the UAV world is easier because of the fact that once the vehicles get above the ground, they don't worry about running into obstacles, for the most part.'

The challenge of safely operating unmanned vehicles on highways and off-road is one of the biggest challenges developers face, said Sebastian Thrun, director of Stanford University's artificial intelligence lab.

Unlike flying vehicles, ground vehicles have to contend with curbs, fences, boulders, ditches, other vehicles, pedestrians and countless other obstacles. The goal is for the vehicles to be mostly autonomous, which means they must rely on sensors and other systems to keep them safe.

'That's probably the biggest void in ground vehicles,' Thrun said.

This was made acutely apparent last year during a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency UGV event, the Grand Challenge.

The competition challenged UGVs to run from Barstow, Calif., to Primm, Nevada'about 142 miles. But the $1 million prize was not claimed because none of the 15 finalist were able to complete the desert course'in fact, the farthest any of the UGVs got was 7.4 miles.

Another Grand Challenge is scheduled for next month. The prize has been boosted to $2 million, and the route will be not more than 175 miles over desert terrain.

Even with the latest technologies, the teams will not have an easy time, Thrun said.

Sensors, such as lasers and radar, can have difficulty spotting obstacles if the contour of the terrain impedes their lines of sight. And the faster the vehicles travel, the more difficult control becomes.

Opportunity knocks

The challenge for researchers is to find new ways for UGVs to avoid obstacles..

'So instead of using those techniques, we need to turn towards techniques that have more of an intuitive feeling,' Thrun said.

For example, drivers on a highway mostly rely on driving between lane markers and maintain a safe speed so as to not crash into the cars in front of them. Making UGV sensors think like that, rather than trying to scan the entire road surface multiple times a second, may be the answer.

IT is a big piece of developing and implement UGVs, said Arthur Sanderson, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

'As we build and implement autonomous vehicles, particularly in the military framework, it is critical that the surrounding information infrastructure be available to integrate them into, and execute the appropriate tasks,' Sanderson said. 'As they grow in their role in the military mission, that IT infrastructure will need to grow as well.'

R&D on UGVs and robots in the United States is focused mainly on the Defense Department, but international efforts are being applied to civilian applications, according to a study released this month.

The International Study of Robotics Research'sponsored by NASA, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health'found that development of mobile robots in the European community focuses on civilian and urban infrastructure, said George Bekey, a University of Southern California professor who participated in the study.

In France, for example, research is being done on using robotics for urban transportation, Bekey said.

While much work remains in developing unmanned vehicles for the battlefield, a joint Army-Navy project to develop UGVs to serve as facility guards is closer to reality.

Northrop Grumman Corp. won a contract to develop a UGV under the Army's Family of Integrated Rapid Response Equipment program. Northrop's Tactical Amphibious Ground Support vehicle was selected to be the unmanned ground platform for the program, said Paul Cabellon, marketing communications manager for Northrop Grumman. The company's Remotec Inc. subsidiary won the contract.

Northrop's portion of the $11.6 million UGV contract is $4.3 million to provide four vehicles to the Army, Cabellon said.

The Tactical Amphibious Ground Support system is a tracked vehicle about the size of a compact car with a 60-horsepower diesel engine. It can carry about 2,400 pounds and has a top speed of 25 mph.

'It's going to do surveillance for bases, stations and things like that,' Cabellon said. 'It is waypoint navigated autonomous, which means that the sensors aboard it allow it to steer along a predetermined path.'

In the works; ready soon

The vehicles are under production and are scheduled to be deployed at bases in Iraq in the fall of 2006, Cabellon said.

A similar system being developed is the Mobile Detection Assessment and Response System, or MDARS. It will provide intrusion detection and inventory assessment capabilities for warehouses and storage sites.

General Dynamic's initial development and demonstration contract for MDARS is worth $17 million, a company official said.

General Dynamics expects to start producing the vehicles in the next nine months, Myers said. Besides patrolling for intruders and checking locks, the four-wheeled vehicle will have RFID readers onboard to perform inventory checks.

'The time of robotics has arrived,' said USC's Bekey. 'You can see it in the commercial successes, you can see it in the robots on Mars, and you can see it in the international cooperations that are developing it.'

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for GCN's sister publication Washington Technology.

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