The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Mars Exploration Rover illustration
As NASA moves beyond spacecraft like Mars Exploration Rover (above), the agency will need to invest in autonomous navigation and other technologies. (credit: NASA)

A “Grand Challenge” for NASA

It’s unusual for a story about a road race from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to make the front page of the Los Angeles Times, unless there’s great tragedy—and/or famous celebrities—involved. Yet there it was, in the bottom-left corner of the front page of the Times’ Friday, February 21 issue: a story about a vehicle race between the two cities that is not scheduled to take place for over a year.

The race made it on the front page for two reasons, neither of which had to do with tragedies or celebrities. The first was the unique nature of the race: the vehicles involved would be entirely robotic, with no humans “or other biological entities” (sorry, Fido), in the vehicle, and without any remote control. The second is the sponsor of the race, who is putting up a $1 million grand prize: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA.

Why is a branch of the Pentagon sponsoring a road race? The purpose of the “DARPA Grand Challenge”, according to the official web site for the race, is to “leverage American ingenuity to accelerate the development of autonomous vehicle technologies that can be applied to military requirements.” In other words, DARPA wants to see if anyone outside the usual academic, industrial, and military research communities has a better way to develop vehicles that can drive themselves.

Apparently, there are quite a few people who think they can. The Times reported that over 200 potential participants were expected to attend a one-day meeting in L.A. last Saturday where DARPA would provide additional details about the competition. Some of the potential participants are planning to spend several hundred thousand dollars of their own money to build vehicles in time for the race, scheduled for March 13, 2004.

Over 200 people are willing to participate in a race which some experts believe cannot be won with current technology.

Even though organizing the competition consider the concept audacious, given the short distances and slow speeds achieved by autonomous vehicles to date. “This will be a spectacular event if someone builds an autonomous vehicle that can travel 300 yards, no less 300 miles,” Jose Negron, the US Air Force colonel who is running the competition, told the Times. “That will be inspiring.” (If no one wins the 2004 race, DARPA will try again in following years; its Congressional authority to award the prize runs through fiscal year 2007.)

So what does any of this have to do with NASA? DARPA has shown the ability to take an unconventional approach to solving a technological problem. NASA, in its quest to take on increasingly challenging robotic missions, from advanced rovers on Mars to flybys of distant planets, is dependent on advanced technology in a wide range of fields to make those missions possible. However, NASA’s budgets for technological development are limited, as are the number of research labs who work on such projects. NASA, like DARPA, could benefit from a new approach to technological innovation.

NASA can take a small first step by participating in the DARPA Grand Challenge. The agency could help promote the race, provide a share of the grand prize money, or offer other awards to entice entrants, all in exchange for access to the winning technology. While DARPA is interested in autonomous vehicle navigation for military purposes, the same technology could enhance future Mars rover missions, enabling them to visit sites more quickly and efficiently than with human intervention via delayed communications. Such technology will become absolutely essential for robotic missions beyond Mars, where the light travel-time delay will make remote operation virtually impossible.

Beyond the DARPA Grand Challenge, NASA could consider staging similar competitions of its own. The nature of the competition would change, of course, depending on the technology NASA is encouraging people to develop. An engine or thermal protection system technology might require a rocket race, for example, while NASA might sponsor a submersible race for technologies to be used on future missions to explore Europa’s subsurface oceans. The key will be to choose technologies that are both important and challenging while still incremental enough to permit participation by small companies and even hobbyists in addition to large companies and universities.

A competition is ideal for a publicity-hungry agency like NASA; one can imagine networks like Discovery and TLC covering a Grand Challenge-like race.

The other important aspect is that it must be a competition, not a prize. A prize simply offers a cash award to the first person or organization to achieve a particular goal, with no deadline pressure other than any arbitrary deadline established by the prize organizer. A competition instead encourages refinement of the required technology to not only achieve a goal, but to do it better than the other entrants. Competitions are won not necessarily by those who first develop the required technology, but by those who best refine and utilize the technology to achieve the required goal.

Another advantage of competitions over prizes is their overt nature. Prizes are stealth competitions: you don’t know when the prize will be won, or even when people will attempt to win the prize, or even necessarily who is competing. A competition, on the other hand, puts all the entrants on the starting line at the same time on a given day. That’s ideal for a publicity-hungry agency like NASA as well as the media that would want to cover it: one can imagine the interest television networks like The Discovery Channel and TLC would have in a Grand Challenge-like race!

Competitions are not inherently better than prizes; both have their roles. Both, though, provide a way for NASA to stretch its research dollar, gaining access to new technologies for relatively modest prices. There are a number of regulatory and logistical issues that would have to be overcome for NASA to adopt the competition concept (perhaps most notably liability, given the litigious nature of American society today, as well as any required Congressional authorization.) The agency, however, is faced with its own “grand challenge” of developing enabling technologies for a new generation of spacecraft missions, and competitions might just be part of the winning team.