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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 11 | Dec. 2, 2004

UBC Team to Compete in U.S. Defense Department Robotic Challenge

By Michelle Cook

UBC’s Centre for Environmental Research in Minerals, Metals and Materials (CERM3) will participate in a U.S. Defense Department competition designed to accelerate research and development in autonomous ground vehicle technology to help save lives on the battlefield.

The DARPA Grand Challenge 2005 will take place in the Mojave Desert on October 8, 2005. The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is offering a $2 million prize to the vehicle that completes the course in the fastest time within a 10-hour period.

Called Team Thunderbird, the UBC group is expected to be the only Canadian competitor in next year’s challenge. The team expects to have its robot, an SUV covered in maple leaves, ready for hardware testing by mid-December, with a fully autonomous system in place by mid-February.

“Someday soon, robotics technology will allow us to accomplish tasks that today place humans at risk,” says team leader Andrew Lyon. “Whether the application is military or civilian such as mining, forestry, search and rescue, or fire-fighting, robotics can help prevent human injury or death. Team Thunderbird is excited to be able to put together a Canadian team that can contribute to this effort and develop the technical innovations that will help us win the prize.”

The UBC team is comprised of students and professors from the Faculty of Applied Science with a multidisciplinary set of skills in mechanical, electrical, computing, engineering physics, materials science, and mining engineering technologies. Several students from the Sauder School of Business have also volunteered their time to help run the financing end of the initiative. The team has already attracted some sponsorship but, in order to fully develop the vehicle, it needs to raise an additional $300,000.

Mining engineering professor John Meech says the team’s base in the Mining Engineering department gives it an edge. Robots are already being used successfully in several underground and open-pit mines to load, haul, and dump ore. If the race were run at night, Meech says, Team Thunderbird would have an advantage given its knowledge of robotic operations conducted in the dark.

DARPA’s mission is to pursue R&D technology in areas where the payoff is very high and where success can provide dramatic advances in both civilian and military capabilities. The agency’s DARPANet computer network in the 1970s was the forerunner to the Internet.

The 2005 event will be the second DARPA Grand Challenge. In March 2004, 15 robotic vehicles attempted to navigate a challenging 142-mile route along desert tracks between Barstow, California and Las Vegas, Nevada. The farthest distance any team got on the course was 11.3 kilometres.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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