The Arizona Republic
The Arizona Republic
For the past year, a group of Tucsonans have led an effort to build a vehicle that can drive itself.
If successful, they stand to reap millions in government contracts and a significant footnote in the history books.
But many of them insist that money is not the only goal.
During the seven days in May that they spent testing their prototype vehicle in New Mexico, thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops swept through the fields and farmlands south of Baghdad, searching for three missing servicemen thought to have been captured by an al-Qaida group.
In the process, two American soldiers were killed and several members of coalition forces were wounded, picked off by improvised explosive devices.
Yes, the self-driving technology could make the businessmen rich. But they also know their efforts could save lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and wherever the global war on terrorism takes their countrymen.
The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2001 set as a goal that one-third of the U.S. armed forces’ ground-combat vehicles be unmanned, self-driving units by 2015.
Yet the closest vehicles to what Congress had in mind are civilian cars that can handle simple tasks, such as the forthcoming Lexus LS 460L, which can park itself. This is where Larry Head, interim department head of the systems and industrial engineering department at the University of Arizona comes in.
For about a year, he has been working closely with a handful of tech companies – Raytheon, Preferred Chassis Fabrications, Tucson Embedded Systems and iRobot Corp., the company that designed the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner – to develop Congress’ dream vehicle.
Calling themselves Team Scorpion, they all are part of the Urban Challenge, a biennial competition administered since 2003 by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the central research arm of the U.S. Defense Department.
Of the hundreds of technologies DARPA money has spawned since its creation in 1958, the Internet is the best known. And like the Internet, the technology developed as part of this challenge could, and probably will, find its way into civilian uses and markets.
The team is working with a vehicle called the Scorpion, which boasts a unique suspension system that connects the front and rear axles in such a way as to make the Scorpion exceptionally stable, regardless of what it’s rolling over. The result is a “rock crawler” that can tackle just about any terrain.
This year, 11 teams, including Team Scorpion, received $1 million each in seed money to compete in the challenge, which will conclude with a November race at an undisclosed location.
Some two dozen additional teams also will compete on their own dime.
The winning vehicle – which will be expected to start, stop, make lane changes, U-turns and other commonplace maneuvers automatically – will earn its developers a $2 million first prize. Far more tantalizing, the vehicle also has the potential to win its team millions of dollars in government contracts to further develop the technology.
“DARPA does not give money away to do anything easy,” said Russell Mikesell, 49, senior principal systems engineer for Raytheon Missile Systems’ Advanced Programs. “This is the thing you go to engineering school for.”
The May outing to Playas, N.M., was the team’s third, and at this stage the vehicle knows when it’s in a lane and when it has crossed over a lane divider.
“I would have to say that we have a long way to go,” Mikesell said. “(And) the thing we’re shortest on is time.”
By the end of Team Scorpion’s experiment, they will have spent more than $4 million and begged and borrowed tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of additional parts and equipment on top of that. Just one of the sensors used to detect obstacles in the Scorpion’s path, for example, costs $60,000.
Raytheon alone has invested $1.7 million, according to Mikesell.
But to even make it as far as the intermediate DARPA inspections, time-tested mechanical craftsmanship must work hand in hand with cutting-edge computer technology.
“Computers can only take us so far,” Mikesell said. “Until you get them on some really good hardware, what good are they to you?”
Head said that everyone is aware of the technology’s moneymaking potential when it comes to civilian use.
“There are a lot of teams in the challenge from Ford and other manufacturers,” Head said. “They know it’s the next generation of technology.”
The team has come a long way since members drafted a plan for the vehicle nearly a year ago.
Now, said Dwaine Jungen, president of Preferred Chassis Fabrication, which builds the civilian version of the Scorpion, “you just have to be able to hang in there and survive.”