Armor: May 20, 2004


For several decades, the U.S. Department of Defense has been trying to build a robotic vehicle, without much success. On March 13, 2004, the Department of Defense decided to give enterprising civilian organizations a chance to show what they could do. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) held the DARPA Grand Challenge. Put simply, the first robotic vehicle (moving completely under software control, with no human intervention) that could complete a 150 mile course would get a million dollars for its designers. No one even came close. Here are the results.

Vehicle 22 - Red Team - At mile 7.4, on switchbacks in a mountainous section, vehicle
went off course, got caught on a berm and rubber on the front wheels caught fire, which
was quickly extinguished. Vehicle was command-disabled.

Vehicle 21- SciAutonicsII - At mile 6.7, two-thirds of the way up Daggett Ridge, vehicle
went into an embankment and became stuck. Vehicle was command-disabled.

Vehicle 5 - Team Caltech - At mile 1.3, vehicle veered off course, went through a fence,
tried to come back on the road, but couldnt get through the fence again. Vehicle was

Vehicle 7 - Digital Auto Drive - At mile 6.0, vehicle was paused to allow a wrecker to
get through, and, upon resuming motion, vehicle was hung up on a football-sized rock. 
Vehicle was command-disabled.

Vehicle 25 - Virginia Tech - Vehicle brakes locked up in the start area. Vehicle was
removed from the course.

Vehicle 23 - Axion Racing - Vehicle circled the wrong way in the start area. Vehicle was removed from the course.

Vehicle 2 - Team CajunBot - Vehicle brushed a wall on its way out of the chute. Vehicle has been removed from the course.

Vehicle 13 - Team ENSCO Vehicle moved out smartly, but, at mile 0.2, when making its first 90-degree turn, the vehicle flipped. Vehicle was removed from the course.

Vehicle 4 - Team CIMAR - At mile 0.45, vehicle ran into some wire and got totally wrapped up in it. Vehicle was command-disabled.

Vehicle 10 - Palos Verdes High School Road Warriors - Vehicle hit a wall in the start area. Vehicle was removed from the course.

Vehicle 17 - SciAutonics I - At mile 0.75, vehicle went off the route. After sensors tried unsuccessfully for 90 minutes to reacquire the route, without any movement, vehicle was command-disabled.

Vehicle 20 Team TerraMax Several times, the vehicle sensed some bushes near the road, backed up and corrected itself. At mile 1.2, it was not able to proceed further. Vehicle was command-disabled.

Vehicle 15 Team TerraHawk Withdrew prior to start.

Vehicle 9 The Golem Group At mile 5.2, while going up a steep hill, vehicle stopped on the road, in gear and with engine running, but without enough throttle to climb the hill. After trying for 50 minutes, the vehicle was command-disabled.

Vehicle 16 The Blue Team Withdrew prior to start.

The basic problem is, and always has been, that there are too many obstacles a robotic land vehicles must be able to deal with on its own. At sea, and in the air, its a much different, and much simpler, situation. Over a century ago, naval torpedoes were built that could make sufficient adjustments while under way to reach their intended target. Guided missiles came along half a century ago and achieved the same thing in the air. 

The DARPA contest has convinced developers of robotic vehicles that they have to give their creations a large amount of basic knowledge of obstacles, and how to deal with them, if they are to succeed. Until now, robotic vehicles depended on TV cameras (linked to computers that could detect traversable paths), laser rangefinders and the like to learn on the go. But none of these vehicles really remembered anything. For a robotic vehicle to succeed, it needs some basic knowledge of the world. There is sufficient cheap computing power available to provide that, and the next batch of robotic vehicles will use this approach. This is also going to create the kind of knowledgeable robots that have for so long been popular in Science Fiction literature. It wont take long for a robotic vehicle developer to equip a infantry packbot (a low slung vehicle that brings supplies to infantry deep in a combat zone) with a speech recognition and voice synthesizer module so that, when the troops wondered aloud who the packbot took so long to get the stuff to them, the vehicle could respond, there was a lot of mud down the hill today and I had to go around it.

Equipping a robotic vehicle with sensors that can detect water, mud, and the depth of both, is the sort of thing a successful packbot will require to survive on a battlefield. Being able to respond to audible commands is another feature the troops have already requested for such a vehicle. So the effort is not just to build a robotic vehicle, but a robot in the classic sense. Thats how much computing power is required to enable a machine to go for a cross country trip over unfamiliar terrain, and succeed. Eventually, this will lead to robotic combat vehicles.




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