Off Road and Off the Charts

If it were a sci-fi movie, it might be titled "It Came from the Garage."  But the Grand Challenge being staged by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) isn't just a show-biz trick.  It is a deadly serious competition designed to elicit the best ideas in unmanned vehicles, the kind of vehicles that can be lifesavers in warfare.

On October 8 the world will be watching eagerly as 20 robotic, fully autonomous vehicles attempt to navigate 175 miles of rugged Southwest desert terrain.  The technological innovation unveiled in the race could some day save the lives of American soldiers on the battlefield, and the spoils that go to the victor in this special challenge include a $2 million-dollar prize.

Described as a cross between television's "Survivor" and a computer programming and gaming contest, the Grand Challenge is the second organized by DoD.  Quite literally a race, the prize money goes to the team whose vehicle completes the demanding course the fastest.  The overall time limit is 10 hours, which seems lengthy until you realize that the robotic vehicles will have to perform a number of complex tasks along the way.

As you might guess, many of the teams come from top engineering minds representing universities like Carnegie Mellon, Cal Tech and Cornell, but this year's competition will also feature a "Monster Garage"-style group of self-described "California garage guys." Team leader Chris "CJ" Pedersen and the AI Motorvators have dubbed their entry "Dawn of the Independents" or more simply, "IT."  This group of decidedly non-academic types (by their own admission) look at themselves as David to the Goliath of the big university think-tank entries. 

"I was looking at the DARPA Web site for small business programs when I came upon the challenge," said Pedersen. "I knew right away that we could build a vehicle to enter the race.  I started calling people, trying to get them involved. The hardest task was lifting the confusion of how to approach the complicated sets of problems involved. The learning curve is very steep."

The winning vehicle must function day and night in harsh conditions too dangerous for human drivers, tirelessly performing a multitude of tasks, all without human assistance.  Among the jobs that could be performed by the robotic vehicles are supplying military forces under fire in hostile areas and locating and defusing ordnance in the field.

DARPA is the central research and development agency in the Department of Defense, and it has pioneered major technological breakthroughs such as the Internet, stealth aircraft, smart bombs and the pilotless Predator aircraft. While the DoD initiative is designed to elicit prototypes for military vehicles, the same technology could be used on a civilian level to allow blind and disabled persons to enjoy greater mobility.

Thus far, DARPA has narrowed the field of competing teams down to 40 semifinalists who will participate in a week-long national qualification event. From September 27 through October 6 vehicles will compete on an obstacle course on the California Speedway in Fontana, California. Twenty vehicles will then be chosen to run in the final race. The showcase event is open to the public and is expected to garner widespread media attention.

Long a fan of innovative weaponry, Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.