Tuesday, October 11, 2005

So Close and Yet So Far

This weekend my BIL participated in a race out in Nevada. It wasn't your ordinary car race; this race had no drivers. The cars drove themselves through the course. They are officially called autonomous vehicles, and they have computers and sensors; they are programed and then sent out to see if they can get from start to finish without mishap. The race is called The Grand Challenge, and is put on by DARPA, an agency of the government in charge of developing new technology for the military.

The first Grand Challenge was held last year, and none of the vehicles made it more than 7 miles, on a course of over 100 miles. It was exciting, but disappointing too. This year, being the second year, drew more contestants, and better vehicles. BIL, heading up a team sponsored by his employer, ENSCO, entered last year, and did a good job, though he didn't get the farthest on the course. Officials at the race did note his strategies and ingenuity and remarked to him that they were impressed. I would note that the vehicle that did get farthest kind of cheated by hiring a plane to fly over the general area of the race and photograph a "map" of the area(I say kind of cheated because it wasn't prohibited by the rules, but was clearly not in the spirit of the contest; each team was not supposed to have any foreknowledge of the course) and spent a truckload of money on their vehicle. (They had also been working on this type of vehicle for several years, before the race was thought up.) If you were to rate the success by cost effectiveness of the technology, they would NOT have come in first.

This year a lot of the same teams were back, as well as some new ones. BIL and his team designed a whole new vehicle, which they named DEXTER, and had a great start. They did well in all the trials and earned a pole position of 10 out of 23 vehicles. Each vehicle would leave their chute at a staggered start time. No one was really sure if anyone would finish again this year or not, but expectations were higher this year. I was impressed with how well everyone was doing compared to last year.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comDEXTER

The race was on Saturday, and DARPA had live time coverage on their website, Darpa Grand Challenge . I was glued to the screen watching. BIL's vehicle was doing great, it passed 4 vehicles and was in 5th place. Then they passed #4 while it was still running! So they were #4. They got through the toughest part of the course, and were averaging the best time. Things looked so good! But then, aaarrrghhh! The vehicle got a flat tire, and officials were forced to have the vehicle shut down. Waaaahhh!

Image hosted by Photobucket.comthe ENSCO team with DEXTER

As it turned out, the first 3 vehicles did finish, and were followed later in the day by one more, and a 5th vehicle on Sunday, which put DEXTER in at 6th. They did get the farthest of the teams who did not finish. What a disappointment, because of a flat tire! So aggravating. Still, it was very exciting, and again, officials are impressed with BIL's approach so may still want contact with him in the future to discuss developing some projects. But the $2 million prize money would have been nice too LOL


Michelle said...

Thank you so much for your kudos to Gary. I'm glad you liked his project and found it so exciting. Family support has been key while he's been working virtually 24/7 on DEXTER.

This project is only one of many which Gary attacks full on. I think a call is necessary to his eighth grade guidance counselor who said he would never graduate from high school.

There is hope for every computer nerd and garage geek out there! I hope someone who sees the coverage will be inspired. Agencies like DARPA have contests like this all the time.

I'd like to acknowledge (to whomever might read ths) the high school students from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology who participated in the race. Some of them were better programmers than paid college graduates. The student interns worked very very hard. Their youthful exuberance (sp?) was infectious and inspired the rest of the team.

Michelle Carr - wife of DEXTER Team Leader, Gary Carr

Paula said...

Interesting! Good for your BIL. My dh has contracts with DARPA.