DARPA takes driverless ride

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants unmanned systems that can do reconnaissance and fighting that is currently handled by people.

Defense Advanced Projects Agency Web site

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is making a much stronger push in the field of autonomous unmanned vehicles than it has in the past.

As demonstrated by the DARPA Grand Challenge, a $1 million race of autonomous ground vehicles from Los Angeles to Las Vegas scheduled for this weekend, the agency wants to develop unmanned systems that can do much of the reconnaissance and fighting that has been the domain of human beings.

"We see unmanned aerial vehicles as part of a manned/machine team," said Gary Graham, deputy director of DARPA's Tactical Technology Office.

Although DARPA was responsible for much of the technology used in the Predator and Global Hawk unmanned vehicles, Graham said the technology employed in them is simple compared to the agency's goals.

"Although they were visionary, it's time to move ahead," he said.

The problem with current unmanned technology, he said, is that it requires almost constant human supervision, with people giving the unmanned system commands. Unmanned technology requires several users to control one vehicle.

The goal of the next generation of systems is to give one person the ability to control several systems simultaneously. That can happen when systems are developed that give the vehicles the ability to think and react, rather than wait for human commands.

The agency also wants smaller unmanned vehicles to do some of the work that the current generation of UAVs handles. With the model of swarming technology — several small, networked unmanned vehicles working together — the agency hopes to have several prototype UAVs that are not much larger than the human hand.

"We are seeing a decline in the relevance of heavy platforms," Graham said.

Larry Jackel, who also works in the Tactical Technology Office, said his goal is to find technology that would let vehicles learn to react to situations from their human controllers, so that the vehicles can operate on their own. Jackel said DARPA will put out an announcement on the agency's Web site this month for vendors to contribute ideas and technologies for autonomous navigation.

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