Weekly Robot Update 012
A couple of years back, DARPA announced a "Grand Challenge". To take place in 2004, the Grand Challenge was a competition to see if anyone could produce a vehicle capable of self navigating a 150 mile course through the desert. A collection of 25 industry and university teams rose to the challenge and produced computer controlled off road vehicles for Grand Challange 2004. Unfortunatly, the competition was an abysmal failure. The top competitor, Carnegie Mellon's Red Team, drove off the road after only 7.4 miles and promptly caught fire. There was however a silver lining to the Grand Challenge of 2004. It had renewed interest in the field of robotic vehicles.
In 2005 DARPA once again threw down the gauntlet. This time the teams of engineers knew exactly what the were in for, and a slew of new and improved vehicles qualified for the competition. One of them was the brain child of Sebastian Thrun, the head of Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Thrun, along with a team of both Stanford and Volkwagen engineers brought Stanley to life. They put their heads together to construct the pinnacle of autonomous vehicles. Stanley won the Grand Challange hands down, finishing the entire course a full ten minutes ahead of Carnegie Mellon's robo-humvee.
Stanley is a stock diesel powered Volkswagen Toureg R5. Volkswagen of America's Electronic Research Lab developed the drive-by-wire system that would allow Staley to be controlled by his electronic brain. Stanely has a cluster of seven Pentium M processors to do his thinking. But his most winning feature is the suite of sensors that reveal his environment without human intervention. Stanley uses GPS data, wheel speed and position sensors, and inertial sensors for collection of internal information. For the outside world, Stanely employs a monocular video system, radar, paired stereo cameras, and four laser range finders. Stanley processes all of this information in real time, as fast as his tires can eat up the road.
Stanley's power comes from his engine, but the system to power all of the computers and sensors is itself computer controlled and backed up via a rack of batteries. Stanley is more than just hardware, sensors and processor cycles though. Sebastian Thrun also engineered Stanely with a rudimentary self awareness algorithm. Rather than simply programing the car to drive by rote, Stanley was actually taught how to drive. It analyzed how its own reactions based on sensor data differed from those of a human driver and altered its responses accordingly. The robot was also taught to question its own incoming data and analyze it for patterns. Looking further down the road and smarter than any SUV has a right to be, Stanley went from incorrectly judging terrain one out of every 8 times... To once every 50,000. The once timid vehicle no longer jumped at shadows or backed off from shrubbery. Complete with his new programming algorithms, Stanley is now the best of the best of the automotive set. Have a look at this google video of some of Stanleys Grand Challenge highlights.
For his technological accomplishments and Grand Challenge victory, Stanley is being inducted into the Smithsonian this summer. The Smithsonian and Stanely's creators both see him as much more than an up and coming toy for the military. Stanley is precursor for what will some day be the worlds automated roadways. Fully automated roads populated by Stanley's grand children could save tens of thousands of lives per year, in addition to freeing us from the doldrums of the daily commute. There may soon come a time when you simply tell your car where you want to be and then sit back and enjoy your favorite movie, while a host of networked smart cars carry you and your peers safely to your destinations.
By no coincidence, DARPA has announced the rules for Grand Challenge 2007. Vehicles will have to successfully navigate a 60 mile urban environment. Using signals and obeying traffic laws accordingly, vehicles will be forced to move through and merge with traffic. It is due to take place in early November of next year. I cant speak to the roster of rolling robots that will be at the starting line come 2007, but I'm willing to bet that Stanley or Stanley Jr. will be there kicking tailgate and taking VIN numbers. Robots, start your engines! [inspired by Wired]
"It is a one-of-a-kind car, Mr. Long. It is the fastest, safest, strongest car in the world. It is also completely fuel-efficient and is operated entirely by microprocessors which make it virtually impossible for it to be involved in any kind of mishap or collision." - Devon Miles