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Autonomous Vehicles Tackle The Urban Jungle

It’s time to move out of the desert and into the city. The third Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge competition will put designers to the test as they build autonomous ground vehicles that can navigate an urban environment.

The previous Grand Challenge events in 2004 and 2005 asked teams of researchers to create vehicles that could complete 142-mile and 132-mile courses through the deserts of the Southwest. This time, DARPA will award prizes for the top three autonomous vehicles that complete a 60-mile urban course in less than six hours.

The vehicles will have to execute simulated military supply missions safely and effectively in a mock urban area. Instead of boulders, ravines, and other natural barriers, they will have to autonomously obey traffic laws as they merge into moving traffic, navigate traffic circles, negotiate busy intersections, and avoid other obstacles.

“Grand Challenge 2005 proved that autonomous ground vehicles can travel significant distances and reach their destination, just as you or I would drive from one city to the next,” said DARPA Director Tony Tether. “After the success of this event, we believe the robotics community is ready to tackle vehicle operation inside city limits.”

First prize is $2 million. Second prize is $500,000. Third prize is $250,000. DARPA established two tracks that teams can use to enter. Teams entering the first track, which is now closed, had to submit a proposal for up to $1 million in technology funds. In return, the government obtains limited license rights to technologies developed with the funding.

In the second track, teams submit applications and participate in a series of qualification activities. Each team that makes it to the semifinals in the National Qualification Event (NQE) will receive $50,000. Teams that succeed at the NQE will receive $100,000 and move on to the Urban Challenge final event, scheduled for November 3, 2007 at an undisclosed location.

Don’t expect exotic designs, though. The vehicles’ suspension, wheels, interior, and shell may be modified without modifying the status of the vehicle as “stock.” But all safety-critical components must be retained from the original stock vehicle, including the chassis, steering, fuel system, braking system, and drive train. Even the turn signals have to work correctly!

Twenty-five teams from academia and industry alike entered the 2004 competition, but none of their vehicles completed the course. The 2005 competition was much more successful, with five teams completing the course and the Stanford Racing Team taking the top prize with a time of 6:53:58. DARPA organizers are optimistic about next year’s event.

“The Urban Challenge is a more difficult problem to solve than what competitors faced in Grand Challenge ’05, but I believe the participants will come forward with innovative solutions,” said Tether. “There is every reason to believe these enthusiasts will accelerate autonomous ground vehicle technology faster than what would be possible with traditional research.”

DARPA Grand Challenge

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