Road Warriors: Robots Get Smarter, but Who Will Buy Them?

By Jean, Grace V. | National Defense, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Road Warriors: Robots Get Smarter, but Who Will Buy Them?


Jean, Grace V., National Defense


The concept of a car driving itself through city sweets is no longer relegated to the realm of science fiction.

Automobiles competing in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Urban Challenge in November proved themselves capable of navigating through a closed course in California without any humans sitting behind the wheel or remotely controlling the vehicles. Loaded with sensors and computing technologies, the cars, sports utility vehicles and trucks dodged obstacles, pulled into parking spots and merged into moving traffic with calculated precision.

While the technologies to enable fully autonomous vehicles have advanced, robotics experts say there is still more to be done to make them viable in military and commercial applications in the next decade.

"It was a great demonstration of what's possible. But we still have a lot of hard work in terms of engineering and product development in front of us to make it broadly available and broadly feasible," says Bill Thomasmeyer, president of the Pittsburgh-based National Center for Defense Robotics, a non-profit organization.

To accelerate the development of robotics technology, DARPA in 2004 sponsored a contest for unmanned vehicles in the California desert. Fifteen teams attempted the 142-mile course, but none of the competitors came close to finishing the race. In 2005, four vehicles completed the second challenge, running through the 132-mile Nevada desert course in less than 10 hours.

It was about that time that roadside bombs in Iraq began taking a heavy toll on the U.S. military. Suddenly, the need for unmanned ground systems in an urban environment became more urgent.

Few robotic systems were available because of the perceived danger of operating unmanned vehicles in populous areas. Also, technologies were considered difficult to develop and to test.

DARPA soon after announced the Urban Challenge--a robotics race similar to the grand challenges with a decidedly different twist: this time, vehicles would have to navigate 60 miles through a city-like course and contend with moving traffic composed of stunt drivers in other vehicles.

"We started two years ago with the idea that the use of robots in an urban area was so far out that we really needed to create believers among the community," says Norman Whitaker, program manager of the DARPA Urban Challenge.

In the previous contests, teams had demonstrated that the sensor technologies were readily available to help vehicles "see" their desert surroundings to navigate autonomously through the course. But to accomplish the same feat on paved roadways with curbs, lanes, stop signs and oncoming traffic would require more sensors and sophisticated computer networks to process and interpret the data.

"We wanted this to be a software race," says Whitaker.

The participants relied on commercially available sensors, including cameras, lasers and light detection and ranging systems, to help their vehicles discern the environment.

"To the casual observer, it seems easier to drive in a city versus in a desert environment. But if you think about it, it's probably an order of magnitude more difficult than trail driving," says Chris Urmson, director of technology for Carnegie Mellon University's team entry, "Boss," which won the Urban Challenge.

"The challenge wasn't really a navigational challenge--it was more of a sensing and classification challenge and being able to navigate through an urban terrain," says software engineer Chris Terwelp, cofounder of Blacksburg, Va.-based TORC Technologies. The company partnered with the Virginia Tech team, which placed third in the challenge with its Ford Escape hybrid, "Odin."

The teams that were most successful used multimodal sensors--combinations of cameras, lasers and range detection systems--to create a comprehensive understanding of the environment, says Thomasmeyer. …

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