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SPIE Professional January 2008

Robots: Not Stuck in Traffic

The DARPA Urban Challenge showcased the sophisticated development of robotic vehicles.

By Rich Donnelly

By the light of a chilly November sunrise in the high desert near Victorville, CA, a new era of robotic vehicles—and the laser scanners and optical sensors that guide them—began as 11 driverless vehicles rolled out of the starting gates at the DARPA Urban Challenge.

By early afternoon, six of the unmanned, sensor-laden vehicles had successfully navigated a 60-mile course surrounded by both piloted and autonomously-driven vehicles in urban traffic conditions.

photo of CMU vehicle at finish lineA Chevy Tahoe SUV named "Boss" from Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU) was the eventual winner. Stanford University's "Junior" (a Volkswagen Passat) came in second place, and Virginia Tech's Odin (a Ford Escape hybrid) third. The other vehicles successfully finishing were from MIT, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania.

The success of the robotic vehicles in the competition has positive implications for DARPA's military goals and for the commercial automotive industry. It also provided an opportunity to reach out to future engineers and students in optics and photonics.

DARPA's stated reason for the competition is to develop autonomous vehicles for supply missions on the battlefield. But the competition will likely advance technologies in the commercial automotive industry as well. Application of the sensing and computing technologies developed for this race will save lives in both areas.

photo from VelodyneThe competition required each vehicle to perform three simulated missions, with six or seven sub-missions in each phase. Each mission consisted of instructions to visit a series of specific GPS points successfully. At the end of each mission, the vehicles returned to the starting area to receive their next assignments.

Powered by sophisticated software designed to process millions of data points delivered by laser scanners and other optical sensors, the vehicles were required to navigate perfectly through traffic while obeying all signs and speed limits. The closed course, on the streets of a deserted residential neighborhood at the former George Air Force Base, was populated by human-driven cars as well as the other autonomous ones.

photo of one of the scanners at the DARPA Urban ChallengeThe previous two DARPA Challenges were races through the desert. No vehicle finished the first in 2004, and five finished the second in 2005.

The urban environment represented a much more difficult task for the cars in this race.

Raj Rajkumar, co-director of the General Motors-CMU Collaborative Research Lab and a member of CMU's Tartan Racing Team, said the Urban Challenge was "at least an order of magnitude more complex than what was done in the previous Challenges."

The leaders of the winning teams and DARPA director Tony Tether said that aside from the technology developments, the event is a tool for reaching out to future engineers.

"An event like this is the biggest classroom of all," said Charles Reinholtz of the Virginia Tech's Victor Tango team. "The students come here and they're totally focused on what they're doing. They see what the best programs in the world are doing, and they learn from that. There's no topping this."

Tether added, "I think we've changed the lives of tens of thousands of kids."

photo of robotic vehicle at DARPA Urban ChallengeEveryone involved in the Urban Challenge agreed that the results have altered the landscape of robotics and transportation forever. CMU robotics professor William "Red" Whittaker, leader of the Tartan Racing Team, said the most important thing is the awareness generated by an event like this.

"Robots sometimes stun the world," he said. "This is a phenomenal thing for the future of robotics automation and what it can do."

Visit the SPIE Newsroom for more from the DARPA Urban Challenge, including a video: http://spie.org/darpa

Rich Donnelly
Rich Donnelly is managing editor of SPIE Newsroom.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200801.12

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