DARPA is experimenting with giving driverless combat vehicles off-road autonomy

It’s called the RACER program and it has thus far proved successful.
Loukia Papadopoulos
DARPA's RACER vehicle.jpg
DARPA's RACER vehicle.


DARPA’s Robotic Autonomy in Complex Environments with Resiliency (RACER) program has successfully completed one experiment and is now moving on to even more difficult off-road landscapes at Camp Roberts, California, for trials set for September 15-27, according to a press release by the organization published last week.

Giving driverless combat vehicles off-road autonomy

The program has stated that its aim is “to give driverless combat vehicles off-road autonomy while traveling at speeds that keep pace with those driven by people in realistic situations.”

Autonomous software stacks for the DARPA-provided robot systems have been developed by Carnegie Mellon University, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the University of Washington. Each of these models were tested in “Experiment 1” earlier this year at Fort Irwin, California, and are now involved in the current new trials.

Experiment 1 ran through March-April 2022 on six courses of combat-relevant terrain where each of the teams undertook more than 40 autonomous runs of about 2 miles each, reaching speeds just under 20 miles per hour.

“The biggest challenge the teams faced in that desert environment was the vehicles’ ability to identify, classify, and avoid obstacles at higher speeds. The terrain at Fort Irwin provided a number of obstacles (rocks, bushes, ditches, etc.) that were a combination of debilitating hazards (able to severely damage the vehicle) and non-debilitating impediments (limited ability to damage the vehicle),” stated DARPA.

“Since the first experiment, teams have been working to improve perception of the environment and planning navigable routes through development of new autonomy algorithm technologies,” said Stuart Young, RACER program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office.

“The DARPA-provided RACER fleet vehicles being used in the program are high performance all-terrain vehicles outfitted with world-class sensing and computational abilities, but the teams’ focus is on computational solutions as that platform encounters increasingly complex off-road terrain.”

Venturing beyond the environmental features found in the desert

Experiment 2 will now see teams venture beyond the environmental features found in the desert environment, which primarily tested their perception algorithms, to also undertake new challenges which consist of larger and steeper hills. This new adventure will test the machines’ ability to maintain control, particularly going down steep slopes, on slippery surfaces, and navigating ditches.

The teams must further conceive of longer range plans while driving through or around such a variety of obstacles in order to successfully navigate the courses and complete the experiment.

“We are after driverless ground vehicles that can maneuver on unstructured off-road terrain at speeds that are only limited by considerations of sensor performance, mechanical constraints, and safety,” said Young. “At a minimum, the program goal is software performance that allows off-road speeds on par with a human driver.”

It seems that DARPA is succeeding in an area that other driverless vehicle makers have long struggled with, giving its autonomous cars a successful way to navigate obstacle paths. Could DARPA hold the key to self-driving technology?

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