Urban Challenge Under Way!

As I write this, 36 robotic cars are driving themselves around an abandoned air force base in California. Their task is essentially to pass a California driving test, without a driver. The competition is the DARPA Urban Challenge, successor to the 2005 Grand Challenge, and there is a $2 million prize at stake. Last time, the winning car succeeded in driving itself 132 miles through the Nevada desert. This time, the competitors will have the much harder task of dealing with urban driving in traffic. (Because robot drivers are a currently a wee bit erratic, the traffic is provided by a crew of 50 professional stunt drivers in cars reinforced with roll cages).

For robotic researchers, this is high octane stuff, and personally I’ve been glued to it all week. Best coverage I’ve found is Wired’s Defence Blog, the video reports from TGDaily, and the photos from one of the Stanford team. Currently the event is going through the initial qualifying rounds. Twelve teams have been eliminated so far, including some well-funded and professional entries such as Georgia Tech. There has been at least one spectacular malfunction. Best performances so far have come from Stanford, Cargenie Mellon, Cornell and Virginia Tech, all of whom have already secured a place in the final.

I’ll be posting highlights here throughout the week. Go, go, robot races!