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Two years ago, Darpa, the Pentagon’s fringe research wing, hosted a robot race in the California desert, with a $3.5-million purse. Eleven robotic trucks gathered at a former Air Force Base in Victorville, going head-to-head on a 55-mile course crowded with tight turns, obstacles and cars driven by actual human beings. (See video above.) The goal of Urban Challenge, Darpa’s third robo-race, was to advance the technology that might one day take the people out of the Pentagon’s vulnerable supply lines. It’s harder to inflict pain on the equipment-rich, people-poor U.S. military when all you’re doing is shooting up hardware.
The racer closest to an actual military vehicle was Oshkosh’s TerraMax, a robot version of a Marine Corps medium supply truck. TerraMax was a spectator favorite but got disqualified early when it had a fender-bender during a parking test. The big, yellow bot’s size was a realistic preview for future supply bots, but a liability in the race.
At their concession ceremony, Oshkosh vowed to keep working on TerraMax, and today we’re beginning to see the results. Unmanned Systems reports that Oshkosh has fitted TerraMax with the U.S. Army’s Convoy Active Safety Technology. CAST is actually derived from an Urban Challenge contender, built by Perceptek, that failed to make the cut for the final race. It adds cheap, reliable sensors, a simple data-link and servos to existing trucks, so that the trucks will just follow each other along the road, rather than needing constant human direction. At an October 2007 test in Virginia, two drivers in CAST-equipped trucks took turns following each other, letting CAST do most of the driving. I was there, watching in a curious mix of terror and glee as the driver of my truck took his hands off the wheel … and the wheel kept turning back and forth. (See video below.)
Fitted with CAST, TerraMax can function as the “smart” autonomous convoy leader for “dumber” trucks fitted with less sophisticated sensor and processing suites. Like a momma duck leading her ducklings, TerraMax will use its optical and laser scanners and GPS to keep a whole robotic convoy on the road. Oshkosh is anticipating a three-year test of the “CASTed” TerraMax.
In related news, Pakistani militants have torched another U.S. supply convoy headed into Afghanistan. Attacks on convoys in Iraq five years ago drove the initial interest in robotic convoys and gave rise to TerraMax and CAST. You can bet your sweet bippy the budgeteers have got their eyes on our Afghanistan supply lines as they sign those checks to Oshkosh.
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