March 13, 2004 will go down as one of the most significant dates in technological history – the first running of the DARPA Grand Challenge. As in the first automobile race 110 years earlier, a significant “Grand Prix” of US$1 MILLION was posted, though the competitors knew they were really competing for a place in history and many spent multiples of that amount just preparing for the race. The 142 mile course of rugged desert terrain from Barstow (near Los Angeles) to Primm (near Las Vegas) had to be traversed within ten hours by fully autonomous vehicles – no drivers, no human assistance, no remote control. Significantly, the race was not won, and the mass media coverage bordered on mockery.
Of the 15 vehicles which made it through qualifying, the most any competitor completed of the course was 7.1 miles – the best vehicle on the day was 135 miles shy of the mark.
Some didn’t even get off the start line, and most didn’t make it out of the starting complex, providing news crews with plenty of footage of vehicles driving into walls. In the simplistic world of 30 second overviews of incredibly complex events, it was easy to characterise the event as a failure.
But the event showed the way forward for autonomous vehicles and 15 teams now know what they need to learn to win the event next time out - most competitors believe that the prize will go off when the event is next run in 2005.
It also gave the world a glimpse of the battlefield of the future which will be fought largely by intelligent, autonomous machines. The race is the brainchild of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which is already exploring robots for almost every aspect of military usage, from unmanned combat aircraft, through to wearable robots for infantrymen.
Given the lessons of the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, DARPA wants the next ground war fought by the US to be done more with machines and less with human beings, so it has gone outside the defense industry to inject creativity into its next generation of unmanned ground combat vehicles.
The diversity of the competing vehicles was vast – from a bohemoth based on the Oshkosh MTVR defense truck, through six wheelers, four wheelers, caterpillar tracked purpose built vehicles to an autonomous motorcycle, each one brimming with the sensing equipment needed to enable them to safely navigate the course.
Competing teams learned the exact route they needed to follow only three hours before race time, with 1000 way points. Human intervention is not permitted, so the robotic vehicles must be completely autonomous navigating the course, myriad obstacles and making all the decisions usually made by a human being – sensing the immediate surrounds and making hundreds of decisions a minutes to optimize speed at every juncture while ensuring the reliability of the vehicle and navigating the 1000 way-points across 140 miles of the Mojave desert.
The DARPA Grand Challenge site has regular updates.