Normal Traffic Rules Apply: Racing Robots in 2007

January 30, 2007

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The dust has long settled since the 2004 and 2005 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenges, in which unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) were navigated through the open desert. For DARPA's third Grand Challenge competition, in November 2007, the rules have changed: 89 UGVs will be unleashed on a peaceful mock city inhabited by mannequins and drone traffic.

The DARPA Urban Challenge is an autonomous vehicle research and development (R&D) program with the goal of developing technology that will keep warfighters off the battlefield and out of harm's way. 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.

Set for Nov. 3, 2007, the new Urban Challenge will feature 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. The top three autonomous vehicles will safely complete the 60-mile urban area course in fewer than six hours.

DARPA is offering $2 million for the fastest qualifying vehicle, and $1 million and $500,000 for second and third place.

Safe and effective operation in traffic is essential to U.S. military plans to use autonomous ground vehicles in conducting important missions.

This program is an outgrowth of two previous DARPA Grand Challenge autonomous vehicle competitions. DARPA held the first The official winner of the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge was Stanford University's robotic Volkswagen Touareg, aka Stanley, pictured here, PIC via Autoblog.jpgGrand Challenge event 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 the 132-mile desert route under the required 10-hour limit. In the latter competition, the first $2 million Grand Challenge prize was won by the Stanford (California) racing team, whose robotic vehicle topped the field.

Both the first and second DARPA Grand Challenge competitions advanced the technologies needed to create the first fully autonomous ground vehicles capable of completing a substantial off-road course within a limited time.

Indeed, in the past two DARPA races, GPS-based navigation pointed cars in the right direction. Well, sometimes. A GPS receiver triangulates the position down to a few meters based on signals from orbiting satellites. In 2005, CalTech's UGV plowed through a concrete K-rail barrier when overhead power lines corrupted the vehicle's GPS readings. The more successful teams used radar, cameras and other sensors to supplement GPS.

All of this took place in the wide-open desert. The contest this November raises the bar by requiring its autonomous contestants to negotiate a 60-mile course through simulated urban traffic in less than six hours. In so doing, this year's urban environment very well should cripple GPS.

Robotics engineer and Popular Mechanics contributor Daniel H. Wilson recently wrote:

We're likely to see an emphasis on sensors like the omnicam, a camera that faces downward into a curved mirror in order to see in 360 degrees at once.

During the competition, vehicles must follow standard driving laws and deal with the uncertainties inherent in urban driving such as potholes, roadblocks and other vehicles.

According to the January 2007-updated rules, the final event will include "passing of moving vehicles." That is, passing in a passing lane without oncoming traffic. Vehicles are not required to pass moving traffic with oncoming traffic in the passing lane. Although, vehicles may be called on to pass stopped vehicles with oncoming traffic in the passing lane.

Further, the technical FAQ states: "Normal traffic rules apply." It is legal to cross into the oncoming travel lane to pass a stopped vehicle only where passing is allowed (2 lanes, broken white line) or in a zone.

In a free zone, there may be obstacles such as hay bale, cones and even buildings. Although objects will generally be larger than a traffic cone, cones themselves may be used to define the perimeter of the zone for human observers, for example.

DARPA will provide the route network 24 hours before the race starts.

Unlike the past two challenges, DARPA has announced that some teams will receive development funding, based on proposals submitted to DARPA. Eleven teams received the $1 million a piece in contracts under this special program track (Track A). These 11 teams awarded the $1 million grants largely represent major universities and large corporate interests, such as Carnegie Mellon University teaming with General Motors, Stanford teaming with Volkswagen, Oshkosh Truck, Honeywell, Raytheon, California Institute of Technology and MIT. One of the few independent entries in Track A is the Golem Group.

Additional

... w/ pic and video goodness of past competitions:

DARPA Urban Grand Challenge: Home

NOVA: The Great Robot Race

Resources

DARPA Announces Third Grand Challenge Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, May 1, 2006

DARPA Urban Challenge: Frequently Asked Questions (Technical) Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Jan. 25, 2007

DARPA's Tough New Robot Road Test by Daniel H. Wilson Popular Mechanics, January 2007

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