March 1, 2010 By Chad Vander Veen
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is part military, part James Bond and part fantasy, DARPA is where the strangest concepts are built and tested. The agency was formerly known as ARPA, the group that created ARPANET - which you know better as the Internet. The agency is also responsible for projects ranging from unmanned supersonic aircraft to tissue regeneration to developing artificial gecko feet, which would allow users to scale walls.
The agency's highest-profile project is the DARPA Grand Challenge, the autonomous robotic vehicle race covered in Government Technology. (See Game On, December 2007.) The man who runs the show at DARPA is Dr. Tony Tether, a distinguished engineer, businessman, civil servant and private citizen who has served as the agency's director since 2001. The DARPA Grand Challenge, which Tether designed to foster innovation in robotics for military applications, represents a culmination of his effort to "team people with autonomous platforms to create a more capable, agile and cost-effective force that also lowers the risk of U.S. casualties."
DARPA has hosted three challenges to date. The first two pitted robotic cars against the elements. The competing vehicles ran an off-road, desert racecourse and without human assistance. The most recent event, the Urban Challenge, was a new kind of test. The agency swapped rocks and sand for city streets to see how well the robot cars navigate an urban setting without violating traffic laws. The Urban Challenge was a rousing success and the end results surprised everyone, Tether included. Few expected a single vehicle to finish the grueling 60-mile course. In the end, six vehicles saw the finish line.
The Urban Challenge race marked incredible improvement in the capabilities of autonomous vehicles. In the first event, no vehicle managed to go more than eight miles. Only a few years later, a half dozen did, reflecting the positive impact the challenges have had on developments in robotics.
"The 2004 event was equivalent to the Wright brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk, where their airplane didn't fly very far but showed that flight was possible," Tether said. "I believe the significant progress after 2004 was due to the fact that the community now believed that it could be done."
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