DARPA Grand Challenge: Corporate vs. CollegiateS

Three-and-a-half million in prizes is a pretty big deal, and this year, the DARPA Grand Challenge will be webcast live on Saturday, Nov 3 starting at 6:00 am (PT). The event is free for anyone willing to brave a trip to Victorville, California, a Mojave desert town 81 miles northeast of Los Angeles. With 35 semifinalist teams competing, the easiest way to split them up is by whether they're primarily corporate or collegiate, which gets a little tough because there is a fair amount of crossover. What the corporate vehicles seem to have in common is an interest in actually being able to deliver their product to the end user, whereas the college teams seem more interested in trying things out that may not even be necessary. Installs seem to be pretty clean and sensor arrays are relatively modest. One team breaks away from this stereotype: Team Axion's car features gobs of hot glue, a PS3 to run the rear motion cameras, and windshield wipers for their cameras up front. They're also the only team to have brought the same vehicle back for each challenge. Insight Racing is another team with an interesting to look at vehicle: a Lotus with several MacMini's serving as its brain. It seems like only a few teams
really understand the value of a sexy platform in generating interest.

My heart was briefly warmed by the University of Central Florida pit when I saw their budget minded Subaru, a one-time DARPA Challenge veteran. Rather than dedicating the bulk of their tight budget to a fancier sensor, they adapted their Sick LIDARs to custom wobbler units that rotate the units through 90 degrees of motion in order to double their viewing angle. This is one of the more clever approaches in the field, but time will tell if it actually works.