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American Forces Press Service

DARPA Grand Challenge to Showcase Unmanned Vehicle Technology

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 11, 2004 - Enthusiasm is building at California Motor Speedway in Fontana, Calif., as 21 unmanned ground vehicles prepare to face off against the clock this weekend while traversing 200 miles of rugged terrain.

The first-of-its-kind DARPA Grand Challenge, sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, will pit an array of innovative vehicles against battlefield-like conditions between Barstow, Calif., and Primm, Nev.

The event includes an enticing payoff for the top-placing team that completes the course in less than 10 hours: $1 million cash.

Race time is 6:30 a.m. PST, March 13. The course - to be revealed just two hours before the green flag is waved to start the competition -- includes paved and unpaved roads, hard-packed and rocky trails, off-road brush and washes, dry lakebeds, water crossings, underpasses and overpasses, according to Air Force Col. Jose Negron, who is leading the Grand Challenge program. Vehicles must traverse the field using onboard sensors, without human operators onboard or using remote-control devices.

Negron said the event is designed to spur good, old-fashioned American ingenuity to accelerate the development of autonomous vehicle technology for military applications. Another goal is to reach out of people with good ideas who don't normally do business with the Defense Department.

"The intent is to bring together innovative thinkers from a variety of fields who can help us make major strides in the development of autonomous robotic ground vehicles," he said.

DARPA appears to be doing just that. Twenty-two teams from computer programming and engineering companies, vehicle manufacturers, universities and garage mechanics -- and even a California high school -- engineered vehicles for the race.

The vehicles arrived at California Motor Speedway earlier this week for five days of qualifying, inspection and demonstration rounds to ensure they meet safety and performance requirements. This process will continue through March 12.

One team dropped out of the competition, but 21 vehicles are still in the running for Saturday's event.

The vehicles are as varied as the teams they represent. Some resemble military humvees or sport utility vehicles; others look more like motorcycles or all- terrain vehicles. They use different types of sensors and onboard computer systems.

Negron said he's confident that at least some of the vehicles will reach the finish line within the designated timeframe. "But even if we don't end up with a winner, we're way ahead of where we were as far as outreach and excitement about the project are concerned," he said.

Negron said the event also is proving to be a great way for DARPA to tap into some of the innovative approaches being applied to robotics, while generating excitement about the field and the opportunities the Defense Department offers.

"It's amazing how much zeal this has captured," he said. "It's really exciting to see the buzz in the garages."

Negron said the excitement over the upcoming event hasn't overshadowed its real purpose. "While we're out here having fun, our ultimate objective is to save American lives on the battlefield," he said. "That's our bottom line."

Unmanned systems are playing an increasingly important role in combat operations. Unmanned air vehicles such as the Predator and Global Hawk have carried out reconnaissance and surveillance missions in Iraq, and the Predator has performed precision air strikes.

The Defense Department also is stepping up efforts to develop unmanned ground systems that would work together with manned systems to enhance the capabilities of U.S. forces and save lives.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, for example, combat troops moved quickly toward Baghdad, followed by supplies and material. Protecting the supply lines was critical. In the future, officials said unmanned systems may be able to conduct resupply missions without using humans as drivers, and without requiring troops for protection.

While unmanned vehicle technology is advancing, most current models rely on a person to operate the vehicle remotely. Vehicles that don't require a human operator tend to move very slowly and have difficulty traversing terrain with minimal obstacles. For unmanned ground vehicles to be truly useful to the military, officials said, they must be able to cross rugged terrain quickly and easily without needing human assistance.

"That's our ultimate objective," said Negron. "The DARPA Grand Challenge is one step toward marshalling some of the ingenuity that will get us there."

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