The RACER (Robotic Autonomy in Complex Environments with Resiliency) program recently conducted its third experiment to assess how the performance of off-road unmanned vehicles in the competition meets expectations. The goal of the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) program is to demonstrate the autonomous movement of combat-scale vehicles in complex, mission-relevant off-road environments that are significantly more unpredictable than on-road conditions.
Conducted last month, the test runs included the first with completely “uninhabited” RACER Fleet Vehicles (RFVs), with a safety operator overseeing in a supporting chase vehicle. The multiple courses were in the challenging terrain of the Mojave Desert at the U.S. Army’s National Training Center (NTC) in Ft. Irwin, CA—completing the project’s first phase.
Each RFV comes equipped with modifications for roll protection, sensor/E-box integration, autonomous control, and an increased power output of 7 kW. Carnegie Robotics LLC integrated the RFVs onto a Polaris RZR S4 1000 Turbo base drive-by-wire platform.
As at the previous events, teams from Carnegie Mellon University, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the University of Washington participated. Additionally, researchers from the Army Research Laboratory demonstrated the flexibility of the performer team’s autonomy software, critical to transitioning RACER capabilities to the services.
“At Experiment Three, we successfully demonstrated significant improvements in our off-road speeds while simultaneously reducing any interaction with the vehicle during test runs,” said Stuart Young, RACER Program Manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “We were also honored to have representatives from the Army and Marine Corps at the experiment to facilitate the transition of technologies developed in RACER to future service unmanned initiatives and concepts.”
During the most recent experiment, teams completed more than 55 driverless runs of between roughly four and 11 mi each, reaching speeds of about 25 mph. The performers completed 246 mi over 24.6 total hours on the course with a robotic fleet of 12 RFVs.
The terrain at Fort Irwin provided many obstacles, such as large and small rocks, bushes, ditches, and trees, which limited vehicles’ speeds and, if improperly navigated, could completely disable the RFVs. Success depended upon how teams perceived the terrain, planned paths, and controlled their robotic vehicles at high average speeds.
Last month’s activities followed earlier experiments in March and September 2022 at NTC and at Camp Roberts, CA, respectively. At those events, the teams tested their autonomous software stacks developed for the program using DARPA-provided robot systems in a variety of environments—after development runs on their own in various locations across the U.S.
“We provided the performers’ RACER fleet vehicles with common performance, sensing, and compute,” said Young. “This enables us to evaluate the performance of the performer team autonomy software in similar environments and compare it to human performance. During this latest experiment, we continued to push vehicle limits in perceiving the environments to greater distances, enabling a further increase in speeds and better adaptation to newly encountered environmental conditions that will continue into RACER’s next phase.”
Phase 2 will focus on maturing software stacks and testing autonomy over longer off-road courses with fewer interventions. The participating team or teams will port implementations of their autonomy solutions onto large-scale demonstration platforms, which will be representative of a combat-scale vehicle. They will also be required to increase speeds to twice that of the first phase performance metrics.