Mason Group Takes to the Mojave Desert on a DARPA Challenge

Posted: March 12, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich

ENSCO vehicle

It sounds like another guise for another reality television show–race through nearly 200 miles of rugged terrain on a predetermined course through difficult and sometimes unexpected conditions, in less than 10 hours, for a $1 million prize–but the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) couldn’t be more serious. For this race, what DARPA is calling the Grand Challenge, no humans are allowed behind the wheel. The robotic vehicles must drive themselves.

Since Monday, March 8, Team ENSCO from Springfield, Va., has been in Fontana, Calif., trying get their vehicle, “David,” to complete the Qualification, Inspection, and Demonstration (QID) course at the California Speedway. As of Wednesday, only three teams of 21 had successfully completed the course.

Led by ENSCO engineer Gary Carr, Team ENSCO is a company-sponsored and volunteer group of ENSCO Inc. researchers and engineers who have partnered with groups including George Mason and Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology to create an all-terrain vehicle that has been substantially modified to improve its stability and obstacle-climbing capabilities. Sergei Andronikov, associate professor of geography, and geography graduate students Elise Fisher and Damian Kolbay are members of the team.

According to DARPA, the purpose of the challenge is to leverage American ingenuity to accelerate the development of autonomous vehicle technologies that can be applied to military requirements. Current unmanned ground vehicles rely on a person to operate the vehicle remotely. Those that have some autonomous capabilities tend to move very slowly and have difficulty traversing terrain with minimal obstacles. In order for unmanned ground vehicles to be truly useful to the military, they must be able to cross rugged terrain quickly and easily without needing human assistance.

The 21 finalists, selected from a group of 109 entries, find out today who are the final qualifiers and the starting order for the Grand Challenge. On Saturday, just a few hours before the race begins, the entrants will receive a CD-ROM with global positioning coordinates outlining the course they will program into their vehicles.

The course remains a secret and will be closed to public viewing. Military helicopters will hover over the route, and manned vehicles will trail the robotic ones. Biologists also will be stationed along the course to prevent desert tortoises that emerge from their sandy holes this time of year from being run over.

“We are extremely encouraged by how more and more teams are now successfully completing the course or getting close,” said Thomas Strat, deputy program manager of the Grand Challenge, after the QID rounds on Wednesday. “Now that teams are becoming familiar with the behavior of their robots, they can make final adjustments to their vehicles in preparation of the main event.”

DARPA will announce a winner-if there is one-on Sunday. If no entry wins the race, DARPA plans to offer the challenge annually.

ENSCO crew
The ENSCO crew puts the finishing touches

on their robotic “David.”
Photos courtesy ENSCO and Trackside Photo

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