Sensors Mag

A Grander Challenge

June 1, 2006 By: Barbara G. Goode, Sensors Sensors

Now that the Grand Challenge autonomous vehicle race has been won, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is raising the bar. Last month DARPA announced plans to hold a new competition ( on November 3, 2007: The Urban Challenge calls for autonomous ground vehicles to execute simulated military supply missions safely and effectively in a mock urban area.

The Challenges have implications for your work. But perhaps more important, they can charge your imagination and spirit. If you haven't seen PBS's Nova episode called "The Great Robot Race," do yourself a favor. PBS has done an excellent job of documenting it ( You can see a brief preview, and continue on to view the whole episode, which is broken into "chapters." There's also an interview with Sebastian Thrun, leader of the Stanford University team that won the 2005 race. Thrun, by the way, will deliver a keynote address at Sensors Expo on Tuesday, June 6 at 3:30 pm (http:// 

Software, a Key Differentiator
While the online interview is great, it doesn't cover the philosophical difference between the winning team and the other Grand Challenge competitors. In the broadcast, Thrun explained that Stanford's approach was to emphasize software—whereas, he said, other participants emphasized hardware. This is a fascinating distinction. (Incidentally, the Nova episode was filmed before the 2005 race, so the segment's directors didn't know who would win.)

I won't go so far as to say that the software approach made all the difference in Stanford's win—I just don't know (though Thrun is slated to discuss the role of software in his keynote at Sensors Expo). But for sure, software is an increasingly important ingredient in making the most of sensor hardware in any situation. While hardware continues to make important progress, only software can make extrapolations and link to other data sources and systems for greater knowledge and usefulness. 

More on Autonomous Robots
Autonomous robotics is a theme at Sensors Expo this year. Besides Thrun, the event will feature Gentry Lee, the man responsible for the engineering integrity of all the robotic planetary missions NASA's JPL manages. Our recent interview with Lee was the subject of last month's editorial; he'll take the stage on June 6 too, but at 8:30 am. Also, representatives from U.S. FIRST Robotics (—a multinational nonprofit that encourages kids to pursue science, math, engineering, and technology—will be there, and may even have a robot on display.

While I prepare for Expo, I'm enjoying Thrun's view of the future: "I personally think cars that drive themselves will have their greatest impact in everyday life," he says. "For instance, for elderly people, typically when they stop driving, their social networks go away because they can't see their friends anymore. They can't go shopping. They become dependent. And it often correlates with physical deterioration. What if we give them a car that drives itself?" 

Engineer of the Year?
Who should be Sensors first Engineer of the Year? Thrun? You? A colleague? Someone you don't know but whose work you admire? Learn the details now at, and get your nomination(s) in by June 22. You might be very glad you did!

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