DARPA Autonomous Vehicle Research And Self-Driving Cars

Home of DARPA
Aerial view of The Pentagon, home of DARPA

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been on the cutting edge of innovating homeland security since the age of Sputnik, but the DARPA autonomous vehicle research is prompting a collaboration among different industries committed to changing how consumers (not just the military) travel in the decades to come.

As soon as the Russian satellite, Sputnik, was launched in 1957, the United States was on high alert. It is that momentous event that led to the creation of one of the most innovative agencies in the Federal government, thanks to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which, at the time simply went by Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) —the “D” wouldn’t be added until 1972—was assembled to push America to be leaders of strategic technologies rather than play catch-up. In the decades since its inception, DARPA has gone on to influence and initiate projects that have moved homeland security forward in unique and singular ways as well as establishing benchmark technologies that forever changed the face of the world. Recently, DARPA autonomous vehicle research laid the groundwork for the self-driving cars that are creating a new way of consumer travel across a variety of key industries, and thanks to them, momentum is building.

A government agency on the cutting edge

From the day it was created in 1958, DARPA has been pushing the boundaries of technology and innovation. It initiated rocket research that same year and turned over the information it gathered to create the Television and Infrared Observation Satellites (TIROS) Program to NASA in 1959, which would become the basis for today’s global weather forecasting, reporting and researching by the Department of Defense (DoD), NASA and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Organization (NOAO).

DARPA’s purpose

While the agency’s focus is and always has been national security and the technologies developed are heavily military and government based, DARPA’s overarching goal is to push technology forward in a global sense. The group has been instrumental in the advancement of some of the most critical innovations and technologically advanced inventions in the world. Among these are the internet—which began life as ARPAnet back in the 1960s—the GPS and the computer mouse.

DARPA is constantly changing and innovating, never staying with one team for too long in order to remain nimble and fresh. Part of that fluidity is to create access to its tools for universities, industries and small businesses in addition to the armed forces. The agency’s goal is to constantly move forward by addressing real world concerns, strategically and practically. While the bulk of its research is centered around defending the country and creating better ways to arm and support the military, DARPA makes its technologies and findings available across all manner of divisions—universities, small businesses, industry and the public—as well as encouraging input and proposals from those same communities. In the words of the organization’s website, DARPA “works within an innovation ecosystem that includes academic, corporate and governmental partners, with a constant focus on the Nation’s military Services, which work with DARPA to create new strategic opportunities and novel tactical options.”

And that is where the role of DARPA autonomous vehicle research in the creation of the self-driving car comes in.

The story of The Grand Challenges

In the early 2000s, Congress gave DARPA a mandate—implement unmanned vehicles into the military by 2015. Making actual working self-driving cars and transportation had been a quest since the days of Leonardo da Vinci and while the unmanned Mars Exploration Rovers from NASA would be launched in 2003, nothing sustainable for broader, everyday use had come to fruition as yet. To successfully pursue DARPA autonomous vehicle research, the agency felt it needed to do something more than go through the usual internal swirling of ideas or discovery process. This whole idea of pushing the boundaries of autonomous vehicle technology required inspiring and pushing the envelope in a wholly unique way. DARPA did this by creating a contest and inviting a variety of great minds to use their skills and imagination to come up with different solutions from which to choose the best possible features. The organization asked for and received Congressional approval for the event and sent out a broad net to the academic and engineering community to participate. This became a seminal moment in the self-driving car movement.

The First Grand Challenge

On July 30, 2002, DARPA took over The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, attracting hundreds of techies and observers, to announce The First DARPA Grand Challenge. The object of the contest was to create an autonomous robotic vehicle that could complete an as-yet-to-be-determined 150-200 mile course between Los Angeles and Las Vegas for a $1 million prize. The terrain was to reflect the desert conditions of places like Fallujah where U.S. troops were engaging in combat. By the time of the actual challenge on March 13, 2004, 15 vehicles of the original 21 qualifiers were deemed road ready on a 142-mile gruelling course across the Mojave Desert between Barstow, California and just across the border of Nevada in Primm. All of the finalists used a combination of sensors, robotics and cameras to make their dream of an autonomous ground vehicle a reality. Unfortunately, out of those that ran the course, the furthest any of them got was the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Red Team car, which traveled 7.4 miles of the course. A successful robotic car would remain elusive and the prize money unclaimed.

The Second Grand Challenge

Photo by DARPA via Wikimedia Commons
Stanford Red Team, “Stanley,” winner of the Second Grand Challenge

But neither DARPA nor the contestants were daunted. The agency was heartened by the commitment shown by the different participants and announced the Second DARPA Grand Challenge a day later. This time it was to be a 132-mile course to be run, once again, through the Mojave Desert in the Autumn of 2005 with a prize of $2 million to the winning crew. Teams took what they learned in the first challenge and reworked their vehicles, incorporating various sensors, cameras and more to prepare. 195 teams entered and 5 successfully finished with Stanford University’s Red Team winning with their “Stanley” robotic car and earning the prize money. Now that the academic, engineering and tech community had shown a proficiency with navigating the difficult desert terrain outlined in the course, DARPA put its mind around how to encourage autonomous vehicle innovation on city streets.

The DARPA Urban Challenge

Photo by DARPA via Wikimedia Commons
Carnegie Mellon University “Tartan Racing” team places first

The third robotic vehicle challenge was conducted in 2007 and called The DARPA Urban Challenge. The call to action now required driverless vehicles to be able to navigate a complicated course on a staged environment in Victorville, California in which they would need to move through traffic and obstacles while obeying California traffic laws. Again, the prize money was $2 million. 11 teams entered and 6 finished. The “Tartan Racing” team from Carnegie Mellon University placed in first, taking the prize money and all that had been learned through each challenge to start serious research on making self-driving cars a reality for all.

Influencing unmanned vehicle innovation for all

These races sparked the imaginations of the engineering and automotive community in an expansive way. Virginia Tech, one of the finalists in the urban challenge, went on to collaborate with TORC, a company founded by alumni of the Virginia Tech robotics department, to create Grand Unmanned Support Surrogates (GUSS) for the U.S. Marine Corps. The autonomous ground vehicle is designed for mass casualty evacuations from combat/compromised areas, re-supplying of and carrying heavy loads for troops. Per a 2015 article written by Chris Urmson for the National Academy of Engineering, DARPA’s challenges threw down a gauntlet to the engineering community as a whole to take the innovation inspired by and lessons learned from the grand challenges and bring them to life in the real world. According to Urmson, technology used to develop consumer based autonomous features—LIDAR, radar, camera—were those overarching tools used to meet the DARPA Grand Challenges. While the purpose of these contests was to push forward engineering to meet the Congressional mandate for self-driving cars in the military by 2015, the benefits have been much farther reaching.

In the world of the military, unmanned is not the same as autonomous. Many of the unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) created are remote controlled or tele-operated. However, these machines can get into spots and deal with sensitive situations, such as the active mine removal capability of the Abrams Panther and small space surveillance with the urban robot (URBOT) also known as Urbie, without endangering the lives of soldiers. But, autonomous ground vehicles are making their way out of the armed forces and into the consumer world on a large scale. This is all thanks to the imagination and creativity DARPA autonomous vehicle research inspired and pushed forward with its grand challenges. The urban challenge, in particular, opened up a doorway to seeing how the world of self-driving cars could have everyday implications.

The role of DARPA autonomous vehicle research in the military

Since the first three grand challenges, DARPA has pursued a robotics challenge, a cyber-challenge and is currently ruminating over what next to present to the scientific/technology/engineering community. But the DARPA autonomous vehicle research inspiration has gone far beyond unmanned ground vehicles and the driverless car.

By U.S. Navy, Photo by John Williams
Sea Hunter, the DARPA supported ACTUV

As part of the agency’s focus on anti-submarine warfare (ASW), it has created the ACTUV or Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel. Its role is to quietly track diesel powered enemy subs through miles of sea for long periods of time without a single crew person aboard. With everything DARPA autonomous vehicle research has prompted, the word “vehicle” is far-reaching and addressing all of the areas that are sensitive to homeland security—land, sea, air and space.

Among these are unmanned aerial vehicles like the Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN), a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aircraft system that provides consistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) that can engage mobile targets anywhere around the world anytime of the day or night. There is also the dual purpose Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES), which is part of the Transformer TX program. It’s capable of traveling by air and land. It can drop supplies from the air to specific points as well as extract soldiers and casualties from combat zones. But it can also drive on land. It is part of the Vehicle Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) Skunk Works project with Lockheed Aircraft and others.

By DARPA via Wikimedia Commons
An artist’s rendering of the HTV-2 in flight

In the realm of space, beyond the unmanned transporters to Mars, there have been the hypersonic technology vehicles (HTV) created through the Falcon project. Both the HTV-1 and the HTV-2 were tested then scrapped, but enough research was compiled to push forward other potential uses and ways to lower costs. These two vessels were unmanned spacecraft that could function without crew and gather information and drop supplies at space stations. Now working under the name of the Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) program, these types of vehicles are being considered with the parameters of cost efficiency, feasibility and effectiveness.

Drones are certainly among those unmanned vehicles to be counted as one of the things DARPA’s research has inspired. These small, economical surveillance and delivery systems serve a variety of purposes and have already infiltrated civilian life, for fun and business. But the focus now is on making it possible for UGV’s to transport human beings on a grand scale—the autonomous car and beyond—both in combat and day-to-day life.

DARPA of tomorrow

What the world of tomorrow looks like is anybody’s guess, but DARPA’s role as a leader in advanced technology for homeland security and consumer use is something the organization hopes to maintain. It has a far-reaching grasp on a variety of inventions and research is constant.

As we look ahead to unmanned transport, what DARPA has done to promote the autonomous vehicle technology most of us know today is vast. The Grand Challenges alone created an extraordinary renaissance in self-driving cars and pushed forward highly beneficial unmanned ground, air and sea vessels in the military that have implications for commercial and consumer use. While the agency has become less of a player in the tech world than in its earlier days due to the advances made in Silicon Valley and how DARPA’s initial innovations were made available to so many companies, universities and organizations, the goal has always been to inspire broader growth and forward movement that has global value in addition to protecting the U.S. It is what makes this agency such a unique player on the government stage. Its organizational make up and work practices have prompted countless organizations to imitate them, because the amount of progress made within DARPA is unparalleled. It is a highly influential agency that is as creative as it is regimented. Remaining fluid and nimble is key to its continued success and as the world of the autonomous car becomes even bigger, DARPA will keep in step and, frequently, lead the way.