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By Scott Gourley

05 Nov 07. Following almost a week of National Qualifying Events, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held its unique “Urban Challenge” event on Saturday, 3 November 2007, at the former George Air Force Base in Victorville, California.


The DARPA Urban Challenge is the third in a series of competitions DARPA has held to foster the development of autonomous robotic ground vehicle technology to save lives on the battlefield by performing hazardous missions.

The first event, dubbed “Grand Challenge,” was held in March 2004 on a 142-mile desert course (initially envisioned as “approximately 250 miles”) between Barstow, California and Primm, Nevada Fifteen autonomous ground vehicles attempted the course, but none finished and the $1 million cash prize that had been offered to the winning entry went unclaimed.

“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,” claims DARPA Director Dr. Tony Tether. As with progress for airplanes after Kitty Hawk, the 2005 Grand Challenge had four autonomous vehicles that successfully completed a 132-mile desert route in southern Nevada under the required 10-hour limit, and DARPA awarded a $2 million prize to “Stanley” from Stanford University. Dr. Tether added, “I believe that the significant progress after 2004 was due to the fact that the community now believed that it could be done.”

Following the 2005 event DARPA’s focus shifted to an urban environment, with expanded interest in the urban capabilities prompted by the realities of current tactical scenarios. As a result, the 2007 Urban Challenge autonomous vehicles were required to execute simulated military supply tasks safely and effectively on a course that simulates a mock urban area.

In October 2006, DARPA announced two groups of team selections – “Track A” and “Track B” – for a total of 89 competitors vying for starting positions in the Urban Challenge event that would occur just over one year later [in the end, seven of the 11 “Track A” teams and four of the “Track B” teams would make it into the final event].

Speaking at an industry around the same time, Dr. Tether characterized the Grand Challenge as “an unqualified success in attracting robotic enthusiasts from all walks of life to develop technology that will someday save the lives of American men and women on the battlefield,” adding, “The Urban Challenge is a more difficult problem to solve than what competitors faced in Grand Challenge ‘05, but I believe the participants will come forward with innovative solutions. I’m thrilled that so many people want to compete. There is every reason to believe these enthusiasts will accelerate autonomous ground vehicle technology faster than what would be possible with traditional research.”

The urban area selected encompassed the extensive but abandoned housing area at the former George Air Force Base. The facility, which allows for operations in a tightly controlled and monitored urban environment, is frequently used by the U.S. military for Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) training activities.

Urban Challenge event planners noted that safe operation in traffic is essential to U.S. military plans to deploy driverless vehicles to conduct dangerous tasks and keep American military personnel out of harm’s way. As a result, the final event involved a complex 60-mile urban course with live traffic that must be completed in less than six hours. The finalists will operate on the course roads with approximately 50 human-driven traffic vehicles, as well as a “pace car” driving behind each of the autonomous systems.

Speed was not the only factor in determining the winners, as vehicles were also required to meet the same performance standards required to pass the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV

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