Robot Vehicles Compete To Be Next Soldiers

“Vehicles competing in the Urban Challenge will have to think like human drivers and continually make split-second decisions to avoid moving vehicles, including robotic vehicles without drivers, and operate safely on the course. The urban setting adds considerable complexity to the challenge faced by the robotic vehicles, and replicates the environments where many of today’s military missions are conducted.” 

  
  -Dr. Norman Whitaker, Urban Challenge Program Manager

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Artist’s conception: robotic vehicles in the desert. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

A self-driving SUV called Boss made history on November 3, 2007, by driving swiftly and safely while sharing the road with human drivers and other robots. The victory earned Carnegie Mellon University’s Tartan Racing a two million dollar first place award in the DARPA Urban Challenge.
   
    Officials of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) declared Boss the race’s winner which pitted 11 autonomous vehicles against each other on a course of suburban/urban roadways.
   
    DARPA officials concluded that Boss, a robotized 2007 Chevy Tahoe, followed California driving laws as it navigated the course and that it operated in a safe and stable manner. Boss was the fastest of the competitors by a large margin averaging bout 14 miles an hour over approximately 55 miles, finishing the course about 20 minutes ahead of the second-place finisher, Stanford.
   
    “Robots sometimes stun the world, inspire a lot of people and change the belief of what is possible,” said William “Red” Whittaker, a Carnegie Mellon robotics professor and team leader of Tartan Racing. “We’ve seen that here and once the perception of what’s possible changes it never goes back. This is a phenomenal thing for robotics.”

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Testing Sting 1’s ability to maneuver in an urban environment was done at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth, Ga. (Georgia Tech Photo: Gary Meek)

    DARPA had declared Boss the top-rated robot in the event based on its performance on a series of qualifying runs at the former George Air Force Base in the week prior to the final event. The robot performed impeccably despite occasionally being caught behind slower moving. Boss steadily gained time on its rivals. Stanford’s robot, which started second and about 20 minutes ahead of Boss, was the first to cross the finish line, but Boss beat Stanford’s time by 20 minutes.

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1st Place – Tartan Racing, Pittsburgh, PA  

    As the second-place finisher, Stanford received $1 million. Virginia Tech’s Victor Tango team finished third and received $500,000. The robots entered by teams from the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell and MIT also finished the race, though Cornell and MIT both exceeded the six-hour time limit set by DARPA.

What is the Urban Challenge?
   
    The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Urban Challenge is an autonomous vehicle research and development program with the goal of developing technology that will keep soldiers off the battlefield and out of harm’s way. The Urban Challenge features autonomous ground vehicles maneuvering in a mock city environment, executing simulated military supply missions while merging into moving traffic, navigating traffic circles, negotiating busy intersections, and avoiding obstacles.

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2nd Place  – Stanford Racing Team, Stanford, CA  

    The program is conducted as a series of qualification steps leading to a competitive final event, scheduled to take place on November 3, 2007, in Victorville, California.  DARPA is offering $2M for the fastest qualifying vehicle, and $1M and $500,000 for second and third place.

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3rd Place  – Victor Tango, Blacksburg, VA  

    This program is an outgrowth of two previous DARPA Grand Challenge autonomous vehicle competitions. The first Grand Challenge event was held in March 2004 and featured a 142-mile desert course. Fifteen autonomous ground vehicles attempted the course and no vehicle finished. In the 2005 Grand Challenge, four autonomous vehicles successfully completed a 132-mile desert route under the required 10-hour limit, and DARPA awarded a $2 million prize to “Stanley” from Stanford University.

What is an autonomous ground vehicle?
   
    An autonomous ground vehicle is a vehicle that navigates and drives entirely on its own with no human driver and no remote control. Through the use of various sensors and positioning systems, the vehicle determines all the characteristics of its environment required to enable it to carry out the task it has been assigned.

Why develop autonomous vehicles?
   
    The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001, Public Law 106-398, Congress mandated in Section 220 that “It shall be a goal of the Armed Forces to achieve the fielding of unmanned, remotely controlled technology such that… by 2015, one-third of the operational ground combat vehicles are unmanned.” DARPA conducts the Urban Challenge program in support of this Congressional mandate. Every “dull, dirty, or dangerous” task that can be carried out using a machine instead of a human protects our warfighters and allows valuable human resources to be used more effectively.

Who are the teams?
   
    The Urban Challenge teams come from across the United States and around the world, and share a passion for the advancement of robotic technology and machine intelligence. This diverse group includes teams from both academia and the robotics, automotive, and defense industries. Some teams are affiliated with organizations, others are groups of volunteers who have come together specifically for the challenge. Each is working to develop a vehicle to complete the 60-mile urban course in less than six hours. Please visit the Teams page for more information.

What are Tracks A and B?
   
    When the Urban Challenge kicked off, DARPA announced an opportunity for teams to receive funding in amounts up to $1M to develop their autonomous vehicle. Sixty-five proposals were reviewed and evaluated, and 11 recipients were announced. “Track A” refers to the teams that were selected to receive funding. All teams compete on an equal footing to participate in the Urban Challenge.

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