Robotics: Coming To Ag?

John Pointon works at OmniSTAR, the subscription GPS service provider, and he likes to send me interesting articles on GPS “stuff.” This week he sent me a release on something called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and its annual Urban Challenge Event.

Don’t ask me to tell you a whole lot about DARPA, but this event is pretty cool. And aside from bringing to light better technology that the Department of Defense can use to more efficiently conduct an urban invasion, it could also (much like GPS itself) provide spin-offs to use in agriculture.

Teams of robotics experts compete in the Urban Challenge Event in an attempt to complete a complex 60-mile urban course with live traffic in less than six hours with an unmanned vehicle. And, this isn’t about remote control either … these vehicles must run completely off an “on-board mission control computer” with no human intervention of any kind during the contest.

The best finishers in that category then move on to the finals, where they operate on the course roads with some 50 human-driven traffic vehicles. And it’s not just about speed — the vehicles must also meet the same standards required to pass the California DMV road test.

During the competition, the entire field of robotic vehicles is on the course at the same time, interacting with one another just like in real life (but without the road rage). Finally, this is no four-turn NASCAR track. Vehicles must face driving challenges that include traffic circles, merges, four-way intersections, blocked roads, parking, passing slower moving vehicles, and merging safely with traffic on two- and four-lane roads.

The prize? $2 million for first place, and $1 million for second. Not bad.

John Pointon likes to proudly point out that all the vehicles that made the finals in this year’s competition utilize the OmniStar signal. But it also begs the question, if robotics is getting this advanced, how soon will we see robotic application rigs and tractors in the field? Given the challenge of finding labor in rural America today, if could be sooner rather than later.

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