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

Carnegie Melon’s Tartan team wins DARPA Urban Challenge. Photo by Rob NREC via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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m-Government: The Path from Electronic to Mobile

the bridge from e to m-Government

You access any number of government processes via the internet these days. From eFiling taxes to renewing car registration, electronic government or eGovernment is streamlining some of the most time-consuming public transactions. But this paperless solution only succeeds for those people who can get to a computer. What about those who can’t? This is where mobile government or m-Government comes in.

Embarking on the new frontier of m-Government

We are a mobile society. 1.9 billion people or approximately 25 percent of the world’s population own a smartphone or tablet or both. That number is expected to climb to 70 percent by 2020. This steep increase is due to several reasons. The first and most obvious is the desire and ability to stay connected with whomever, whenever. Mobile devices have become economic tools for many as well, allowing them to pay bills, purchase items and check balances on the go. It’s also easier to purchase a cellphone than a computer for many people. But what also makes mobile so appealing is the convenience and ability to conduct business or manage your affairs anytime anywhere. These mobile devices are a global way of connecting and their use is growing. With that comes the expectation of apps that make life easier and more efficient. The ability to create anytime access to eGovernment service is part of what has led to m-Government.

Committed to government app development

the potential information shared through m-Government

Creating apps that allow you to access the public sector is increasing. Governments are discovering that presenting an easier way to engage with their constituents makes it better for the users. It also ensures transparency between public agencies and residents. That encouragement for more open and honest communication and availability of government services comes not only from private citizens, but from lawmakers. Two examples of this are the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the federal government run General Services Administration (GSA).

UAE rewarding government innovation

The UAE is in its 4th cycle of presenting the Best M-Government Services Awards. These were created by Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in 2013 in order to reward those agencies best embracing m-Government. His vision of “making government available and accessible to the public 24/7 and 365 days a year” prompted the competition that kicks off in late October and announces winners at the World Government Summit in February. The contest is open to app developers worldwide to promote creating a more connected, efficient system for the public sector in the process.

GSA and the road to mobile government

The GSA is a massive resource for U.S. federal agencies and the military. It provides real estate that houses different offices, manages the nation’s fleet of public vehicles and serves as liaison between public-private partnership. One of its goals is to establish an easily accessible m-Government, which it does through its Technology division and the Mobile Program Management Office (Mobile PMO). The Mobile PMO offers m-Government based tools to assist federal agencies in presenting smarter public service to citizens. The division pursues this expansion on a national level. It supports different ways of applying mobile technology and even provides assistance to federal agencies in testing and creating their apps.

As part of this digital initiative, the agency has established 18F, which is an office within the GSA’s Technology Transformation Service. The name is a play on where the GSA is located–18 & F Street NW in Washington, D.C. Its purpose is to help “other federal agencies build, buy, and share efficient and easy-to-use digital services.” While its focus isn’t just mobile, 18F provides API key assistance to its clients. API stands for “application programming interfaces.” Basically, this is a way for different apps to communicate. API keys then then make it possible for apps to connect with your account without a password. This is an integral gateway to m-Government services. When government offices use API keys, they are then able to unlock a way to interface with a website’s information on different platforms, including mobile.

Unique opportunity for road and vehicle safety apps

Through the work of Sheikh bin Rashid of the UAE, the Mobile PMO of the GSA and others, the world is evolving its eGovernment service to include a more readily accessible experience via mobile technologies. Consequently, some of the most beneficial m-Government apps are those that support road and vehicle safety. Due to the transient nature of cars, the public sector has seen these as a natural connection to offering easy ways to access road and vehicle information. These are created to alleviate congestion, and make your drive/ride safer and easier. Here are four examples of global based transportation apps:

Hong Kong–promoting inclusion, information sharing and culture

m-Government communication in Hong Kong

The state of Hong Kong offers a rather extensive list of publicly supported apps that address a variety of m-Government needs. These range from providing new, non-native residents with information that makes navigating Chinese society easier to highlighting the life and achievements of martial arts legend, Bruce Lee. Among the transport apps are those that focus on three of the most important ground travel issues in Hong Kong–mass transit, parking for private cars, and traffic updates. Hong Kong streets are notoriously congested and these apps are alleviating the issues the city faces.

UAE–putting their vision to practice

m-Government comes alive in the UAE

As one of the leaders pursuing and promoting m-Government practices around the world, the UAE is a strong mobile presence at home, and road and vehicle safety is part of it. The 2015 winner of the University award for the Best of M-Government Services was its own NYU Abu Dhabi for Road Watch, a traffic app. The Federation struggles with a high vehicle fatality rate and it shows in the number of road and auto safety apps it makes available. These cover everything from finding parking spaces to calling up a taxi to making it easy to add money to your Nol Card–a multimodal electronic ticketing card–and Salik tag–the device mounted on the windshield to gain access to the electronic road toll system. The UAE is devoted to a more connected, transparent government and it is constantly developing and encouraging the creation of new apps to support that goal.

United Kingdom and the pursuit of safer roads

m-Government example for the U.K.

The Government of U.K. offers 57 transportation-based mobile apps out of 404 total. Public transit is a large part of the country, which is the focus of most of these–timetables, routes and so forth. There are also a sizable number of downloadables that offer information on areas or roads that have a high collision rate as well as updating on accidents that may be holding up traffic. Vehicle fatalities have increased in the country and this focus reflects the desire to address the situation.

The U.S. takes m-Government federal, state and local

U.S. take on m-Government

U.S. government mobile apps are available at the federal, state and local level. As with the other countries engaged in m-Government, the goal with all of the apps is to streamline processes for residents. It is why certain organizations were created, such as GSA’s Mobile PMO and 18F departments.

To that end, individual states have an information technology advocate in The National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO). This non-profit organization represents all of the state chief information officers in the United States. It keeps abreast of information technology innovations and how those can best be used to support and challenge the CIOs to push the digital envelope in their home states. Part of its mission is to support and encourage mobile app development across different regions to create a more transparent and seamless process for citizens. Road and automobile apps are a large part of that, especially given the latest report on U.S. traffic fatalities released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the government’s desire to work with autonomous vehicle makers in response.

Whether it’s looking for a nearby alternative fuel station throughout the country (Alternative Fueling Station Locator) or practicing for your commercial driver license test in Wisconsin (WI DMV Commercial Driver License Practice Test), traffic/vehicle-based apps are geared toward arming residents with information that will help them safely navigate the nation’s highways. The range of traffic-based transportation apps are vast in the U.S. and often work in coordination with private companies, especially those at the municipal level.

Open government data for app development

Apps like Citymapper by Citymapper, Ltd. help you navigate and stay up to date with the mass transit systems throughout some of the world’s most complex cities. Hong Kong’s One Click by SAHK teaches social skills to children with developmental disabilities. Both are examples of public-private partnerships in government mobile app development.

Citymapper, Ltd. is a privately owned app development company that works with government agencies to gain access to infrastructure and public transportation information. The Citymapper app covers 40 cities around the world and communicates with users in 12 languages. SAHK’S One Click is available in English, Simplified and Traditional Chinese. It is listed on the Government of Hong Kong mobile apps area under “For Students of Special Educational Needs” and is part of its m-Government directory. These, like many other mobile device interfaces, exist thanks to governments opening up their data to private companies for app development.

This farming out of development helps diversify and expand the public information presented to residents in the most efficient way. The business of government is not in creating digital interfaces, just as tech companies aren’t expected to know everything about enacting policy. By the two partnering, each one gains the benefits of the other’s expertise to develop and offer more user friendly, beneficial information sharing to citizens. This linkage promotes continued app development across a variety of needs, which is the direction the entire world is moving.

The future state of Government 2020

layering on m-Government

Deloitte University Press presents an extensive look at the future of government on its Explore the Future of Government 2020 website. It evaluates future growth across two categories–Drivers and Trends–and how the two combine. Deloitte explains the difference between the two in this way: Drivers are factors “that change the context in which government operates;” Trends are “shifts that result from the drivers of change.” The information presented gives a detailed look at the unique ways these work together to create a different landscape in the next few years. This also includes the area of Transportation and the pivotal role digital and mobile play in the services and systems government offers the public.

A constantly shifting digital landscape

2020 is just a few years away and lawmakers are already realizing mobile’s potential for reaching its citizens and streamlining their lives. M-Government isn’t meant to replace but to link with eGovernment. It’s no longer a question of whether mobile applications will be embraced by public agencies, but how quickly they can be created to address the constantly changing needs of the people they serve.

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