Bots Take Up the DARPA Challenge Using Geotechnology
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Bots Take Up the DARPA Challenge Using Geotechnology

Message from the Editor -

Welcome to GISWeekly! This week's story is about process, not simply the end result. The DARPA Grand Challenge (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) set out to award $1 million in cash to the robotic vehicle that could complete a 150-mile course across the Mojave desert on Saturday, March 13. The race consisted of 15 entries of driverless robots that all either broke down or withdrew.

GISWeekly examines select top news each week, picks out worthwhile reading from around the web, and special interest items you might not find elsewhere. This issue will feature Industry News, Alliances/Acquisitions, Announcements, Appointments/Resignations, New Products, Going on Around the Web, and Upcoming Events.

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Best wishes,
Susan Smith, Managing Editor

Industry News
Bots Take Up the DARPA Challenge Using Geotechnology
By Susan Smith

This week's story is about process, not simply the end result. The DARPA Grand Challenge (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) set out to award $1 million in cash to the robotic vehicle that could complete a 150-mile course across the Mojave desert on Saturday, March 13. The race consisted of 15 entries of driverless robots that all either broke down or withdrew.

A description from a press release describes the race: “Two of the entries covered about seven miles (11 kilometers) of the roughly 150-mile (240-kilometer) course in the Mojave Desert while eight failed to make it to the one-mile (1500 meter) mark. Others crashed seconds after starting. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was sponsoring the Grand Challenge to foster development of autonomous vehicles that could be used in combat. Defense officials foresee using the driverless, remote control-free robots to ferry supplies in war zones.”

What was attempted at the DARPA Grand Challenge was no ordinary feat. If it was, these types of robotic vehicles would already be in use by the military in great numbers. What is important about it is the commitment of technologists to planning and attempting this race, and what they learned as a result of their participation.

A great race is not necessarily all about winning. In the case of the DARPA Grand Challenge, it was the first of its kind. Technology was used to develop these vehicles and to guide them - navigation systems, GPS, satellite imagery for the maps, microcircuits and sensors - over a 150-mile course in less than 10 hours.

One competitor said the goal wasn't necessarily to complete the course.

"It's a tough challenge -- it's a grand challenge -- you can always bet that it's not doable. But if you don't push the limits, you can't learn," Ensco Inc. engineer Venkatesh Vasudevan, said.

“Today was a most important first step in a long journey,” said Dr. Anthony Tether, Director of DARPA. “Although none of the vehicles completed the course, and we were not able to award the cash prize; we learned a tremendous amount today about autonomous ground vehicle technology. Some vehicles made it seven miles, some made only one mile, but they all made it to the Challenge, and that in itself is a remarkable accomplishment.”

Even the head of Carnegie Mellon's Red Team said there was only a 40% chance they would complete the course. It was a very hard course in the beginning and lightened up as it went on. The Red Team vehicle, Sandstorm, crashed on a switchback after traveling 7.4 miles into the desert. It high-centered on the berm of a road, and the collision broke the vehicle's front pair of half shafts and shredded both front tires, then sprung a fuel leak.

According to Red Team leader, Carnegie Mellon robotics professor William L. “Red” Whittaker, Sandstorm's navigation system had never fully recovered from a spill the vehicle took the previous week during a practice run at the Nevada Automotive Test Center (NATC). Whittaker was especially pleased with the performance of the mapping system.

DARPA, the R&D arm of the Pentagon - who has been responsible in part for the invention of the internet, the UAV, and other amazing advances-- has been asked to make a certain percentage of the vehicles used during war autonomous and robotic by 2015. (The UAV incidentally is not autonomous--it's flown with a joystick.) The task for these 'bots' was to get from point A to point B, by being smart about what terrain they were covering and what speed to travel. “There is no driver,” said Gary Napier of Space Imaging, a company which sponsored the Red Team by providing 10,000 square kilometers of imagery for mapping. “You literally hit a 'go' button and the thing crosses the finish line 200 miles later or it crashes. There is no in between. It has to follow a specific course that DARPA determines and provides to these race teams only two hours in advance.” The teams know generally where the course is, but in that two hours they're going to be given 1,000 GPS points. The robotic vehicle must hit all the GPS points going through some sort of corridor, and traverse many different terrain features, under tunnels, etc.

This is where GIS technology comes in. Maps of the environment were designed specifically for the vehicles. Sandstorm had LIDAR projected in front of it, RADAR and stereo cameras to detect objects that it had to avoid, all done in real time. The map was used to tell the vehicle where to go to the next GPS point and to understand how fast it can go according to the type of terrain that was predetermined in the map, using real time information to understand if a boulder was in the way, or a gully was washed out since the last time the maps were made or if there was truly a barrier there, or another race vehicle to go around.

The imagery for the Red Team was integrated into proprietary SAIC software. They also used software from a company that spun out of Carnegie Mellon called TerraSim.

Using the maps developed by Digital Globe, Trimble used their new DGPS to ground truth some courses, and really fine tuned the corridors for Sandstorm.

All six of the teams using NavCom's StarFire Network for the navigation of their autonomous ground vehicle in the race qualified to compete in the $1 Million DARPA sponsored Grand Challenge event. NavCom's StarFire Network and receivers are part of a global satellite based augmentation system (SBAS) that provides precise positioning accuracies within a few centimeters of truth.

DARPA had informed contestants of the general large area between Barstow, California and Las Vegas, but then changed the destination to Primm, Nevada, right on the California/Nevada border. “They wouldn't tell anything else until two hours before the race, so they used satellite imagery and USGS DOQ aerial imagery--that's quite old but has some pretty good accuracies to it--to develop these terrain maps and develop predetermined corridors, the best possible corridors that could be used.”

“There were 20 people devoting thousands of hours on Intel computers to come up with the best possible corridors, then they would run simulations against them to determine speeds. Intel, Boeing and SAIC are all large sponsors of this - Seagate and ATI graphic cards, Intel donated all the computers for the mapping crew,” said Napier. This mapping crew took a 23-foot construction trailer out to the starting line. Twenty people were in there when they got their mapping waypoints two hours ahead of time, and in a mad rush developed and extracted the route and adjusted it into Sandstorm. In that two hours they fine tuned maps that they had developed over the past three months.

Although no one “won” the race, for those who qualified this was a major accomplishment. Before race day, teams had to pass a week-long qualification process, inspection and demonstration at the California Speedway, with entries culled after a first cut from an original field of 106 applicants. The Red Team was the first team to qualify out of 26 entrants. Napier said, “We shot brand new after we told them we would sponsor this, we shot all that imagery new between Barstow and Nevada in November or December.”

The chosen area is very remote - the Mojave Desert, mostly BLM land. Much of the terrain hasn't changed since the DOQs were made. The scenario emulated possible wartime situations where autonomous vehicles may need to be deployed. For example, the military may want to send a bot into an area and pick up a hostage and bring him or her back. In countries such as Iraq, “They don't have DOQs and they can't necessarily overfly it with aerial imagery and they can't go out and ground truth it four weeks out, but they can fly it with a satellite which can go over denied access areas, shoot it in stereoimagery so you can get terrain elevations,” concluded Napier. “From the stereoimagery you can orthorectify it really tight and now you've got a pretty good map just from satellite imagery.”

The use of geotechnology to develop mapping and autonomy for these vehicles is a huge challenge in itself. For DARPA, the race was the beginning of research and development into an area of risk that may pay off significantly in the future.


Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) announced that its Center for Planning and Intelligent Systems successfully demonstrated a system of 100 heterogeneous robots, communications, and intelligent software collaborating to map an unknown building, detect and track an intruder, and guard an item of interest. This represents the first time a collaborative robotic system of this type has been successfully demonstrated. SAIC has developed this new technology to support the coordinated deployment of robots for missions in areas that are not safe for humans such as earthquake-damaged buildings, chemical-spill sites, burning buildings, or terrorist-occupied buildings.

A symposium on “GIS and Remote Sensing in Health Sciences”, organized by the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC), was presented as a part of the annual meeting of the Mississippi Academy of Sciences (MAS) on February 20, 2004, in Biloxi, Mississippi.

The Board of Directors for the 17th Annual GIS in the Rockies Conference issues its call for papers with an invitation to come share, experience and explore the "Worlds of Opportunity" this exciting industry has to offer. Abstracts are to be submitted online . Deadline for submission of abstracts is April 16, 2004.

New Products

Jupitermedia Corporation (Nasdaq: JUPM) announced the launch of its Mobile Edition, a downloadable software program offered to users of (, in addition to other enhancements to the site.

Miner & Miner, Consulting Engineers, Inc. (M&M) announced the 11th release of the ArcFM™ Solution on ArcGIS 8 for electric, gas, and water/wastewater utilities. The 8.3.2 ArcFM Solution comprises ArcFM, Designer, ArcFM Viewer, Conduit Manager, and Network Adapter solution components. This latest version continues to augment existing functionality as well as incorporate new enhancements.

Earth Resource Mapping (ERM) has released its ECW JPEG 2000 Software Development Kit (SDK). The SDK enables application developers to add support for ECW and JPEG 2000 image files. This SDK is an upgrade to the existing, widely used ECW SDK.

LizardTech, a leader in software solutions that make it significantly easier to manage, distribute and access digital content such as aerial photography, satellite imagery and scanned color documents, announced the availability of a new ArcIMS Integration Toolkit that increases the speed of streaming MrSID images over the Internet. The company is also releasing a plug-in, Express Server plug-in for ArcGIS, that allows users to remotely access and share large image data stores.

Leica Geosystems has launched the world's first survey system that seamlessly integrates GPS and total station technologies with standardized operating and data concepts. The new Leica System 1200 makes it possible for surveyors to use both terrestrial and satellite sensors with consistent operation and data management.

GBA Master Series, Inc. (GBAMS), and Engineering Mapping Solutions (EMS) have developed an interface called GBA GIS Viewer™, a low cost GIS alternative. GBAMS is a public works and water resources enterprise-wide asset-management, software-development company with headquarters in Overland Park, KS. EMS, of Phoenix, AZ, specializes in GIS technology emphasizing civil engineering aspects.


Cheryl L. Huber was recently named marketing manager at GeoDecisions, an information technology industry company that specializes in geospatial solutions.

PlanGraphics Inc. (Pink Sheets:PGRA) announced that former Assistant Commissioner and Director of Citywide GIS Utility, NYC Department of IT and Telecommunications, Alan Leidner (see Awards), who rebuilt the entire GIS system in New York City after 9/11, has joined the company as a senior associate. Leidner will work with government executives to craft solutions to critical problems by applying and integrating enterprise spatial technologies in ways that maximize return on investment and improve their ability to govern.

Name Change

Navigation Technologies, a global provider of digital map data for in-vehicle, Internet/wireless, government and business solutions, announced today that it has changed its name to NAVTEQ. The new name underscores the company's commitment to its core business and rich history while also reflecting its focus on innovation and growth.

Effective March 15, the new name and logo will designate not only the company's 100 offices in 18 countries but also its broad portfolio of products, formerly branded NAVTECH(R). Below is the new name and logo as it will appear.

Going on Around the Web...

It scans text with a wave, but DocuPen's no magic wand, by Peter Svensson, Associated Press, USA Today, March 11, 2004 - The DocuPen is a very good idea but leaves users unsatisfied.

Early Problems End $1 million Robot Race, USA Today, March 14, 2004

Lessig: Open-Source Industry Must Lobby for Political Backing-E-Week, by John Pallato, March 17, 2004--The high-tech community in general and Silicon Valley in particular have been "pathetic" when it comes to fighting the prevailing "extremist" political view in Washington that open-source software is a threat to strong intellectual property rights, according to Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig.

Upcoming Events...

Integrating GIS & CAMA Conference
Date: March 28 - 31, 2004
Place: Austin, TX USA
The International Association of Assessing Officers (IAAO) and the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA) are pleased to announce the EIGHTH Annual Integrating GIS & CAMA Conference, to be held March 28?31, 2004 in Austin, Texas. This conference is designed to foster interaction among those who strive to use technology -at its highest and best use - improve the appraisal process.

The GeoTec Event - Pathways to Integration
Date: March 28 - 31, 2004
Place: Metro Toronto Convention Centre Toronto, Ontario, Canada

APS April Meeting 2004
Date: April 12 - 16, 2004
Place: Orlando, FL USA
AeroSense is now the SPIE Defense and Security Symposium. This symposium is designed to meet the technical, educational, and business needs of the engineers and scientists who develop technologies for sensor related defense and security applications. Come see Research Systems Inc. at: Booth# 1036

14th Annual Nevada GIS Conference
Date: April 14 - 16, 2004
Place: Las Vegas, NV USA
The 14th annual Nevada Geographic Information Society conference will be held April 14-16th , 2004 at the Orleans Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. The theme for this year's conference is "Address: Nevada, Planet Earth". The focus for this annual conference will spotlight on technology that is being implemented in the state of Nevada that highlights the connectivity of GIS.

FME Training Course Outline
Date: April 15 - 16, 2004
Place: Denver, CO USA
Join our two-day (1/3 lecture, 2/3 exercise and problem solving) course and learn to unlock the powerful features of FME to more effectively manage your data translation and data transformation challenges. FME Training can help open up a whole new world of possibilities for you. Questions are encouraged throughout the class and attendees are welcome to bring their own sample data files.

International Symposium on Spatial Data Quality (ISSDQ 2004)
Date: April 15 - 17, 2004
Place: Vienna, Austria
The conference should present new research results in all aspects of spatial data quality and how spatial data quality descriptions are used to sole real world problems.

MidAmerica GIS Symposium
Date: April 18 - 22, 2004
Place: Hyatt Regency Crown Center, Kansas City, MO USA

2004 ACSM-TAPS Annual Conference and Technology Exhibition
Date: April 16 - 21, 2004
Place: Nashville, TN USA

MidAmerica GIS Symposium
Date: April 18 - 22, 2004
Place: Hyatt Regency Crown Center, Kansas City, MO USA
The MidAmerica GIS Symposium is the major GIS conference event in the central Midwest sponsored by the MidAmerica GIS Consortium, Ltd. (MAGIC), a nonprofit educational organization.

Date: April 19 - 23, 2004
Place: Sheraton Hotel Billings, MT USA
The 2004 Intermountain GIS Conference, sponsored by the Montana GIS Users Group and the Northern Rockies Chapter of URISA, will bring participants together for an exciting week-long program centered in the theme, "GIS -- Tools of Discovery" linking the Bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to modern day geospatial technologies.

MapWorld 2004
Date: April 22, 2004
Place: Metro Toronto Convention Centre Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Whether you are a power user, developer, manager or are new to using MapInfo, MapWorld 2004 is the place to be.

APA National Planning Conference
Date: April 24 - 28, 2004
Place: Washington, D.C., USA
Join 5,000 colleagues and experience the rich history, renowned symbols of patriotism, inspiring monuments, museums, neighborhoods, and much more - as APA celebrates its 25th anniversary. Take part in a conference rich with more than 200 sessions, 70-plus mobile workshops, Saturday workshops, and special events, all of which will give you an opportunity to explore Washington and the entire metropolitan area.

GITA Annual Conference 27
Date: April 25 - 28, 2004
Place: Seattle, WA USA
GITA?s Annual Conference and Exhibition is the premier educational event for professionals involved in geospatial information technologies, including automated mapping/facilities management (AM/FM), geographic information systems (GIS), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), and related geospatial technologies. The MidAmerica GIS Symposium is the major GIS conference event in the central Midwest sponsored by the MidAmerica GIS Consortium, Ltd. (MAGIC), a nonprofit educational organization.