Defense Media Network

Jump-starting Innovation: DARPA’s Grand Challenges

When Congress released its 515-page Defense Authorization Bill for Fiscal Year 2001, a few lines about 40 pages into the document set DARPA onto what would become one of the agency’s most effective and, with increasing likelihood, world-changing technology quests. “It shall be a goal of the Armed Forces to achieve the fielding of unmanned, remotely controlled technology such that … by 2015, one-third of the operational ground combat vehicles are unmanned,” the tome stated. It was, in effect, an audacious technology challenge – involving advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, sensors, and other components – to get U.S. military personnel out of harm’s way. DARPA leadership took the challenge on and its resolve strengthened in the early years of the millennium as coalition convoys were coming under attack and suffering casualties on roads in Iraq.

The first public display of that resolve unfolded on March 13, 2004, when DARPA hosted its first Grand Challenge, designed to accelerate technology development in autonomous ground vehicles. Even though no contestants came even close to completing the Challenge’s 142-mile desert course between Barstow, California, and Primm, Nevada, to claim the $1 million prize, the event – and two follow-on challenges to accelerate the development of autonomous, ground-vehicle technology – would prove to be a transformative moment in the history of driverless vehicle technology.

“That first competition created a community of innovators, engineers, students, programmers, off-road racers, backyard mechanics, inventors, and dreamers who came together to make history by trying to solve a tough technical problem,” Lt. Col. Scott Wadle, DARPA’s liaison to the U.S. Marine Corps, said in 2014 on the 10-year anniversary of the event. “The fresh thinking they brought was the spark that has triggered major advances in the development of autonomous robotic ground vehicle technology in the years since.” It also would stand as the initial embrace by DARPA of a powerful and effective tactic and incentive for mobilizing the research community to deliver audacious new technological capabilities.

“Since 2004, DARPA has consistently used prized-based Challenges to develop innovative solutions to some of the most difficult national security problems,” DARPA Director Steven Walker said in March 2018 at a White House roundtable on American innovation.

A month later, on April 18, at the 34th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, DARPA formally announced its Launch Challenge in which competitors will vie for a top prize of more than $10 million based on their performance in two separate launches of small satellites at different launch sites on short notice – changing the paradigm from years of pre-planning and preparation to days. Beyond realizing the technical goal of demonstrating agile responsive launch capability, the new Challenge also is about nurturing a nascent industry and community of space-launch providers, Fred Kennedy, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office (TTO), told the gathering.

Network Challenge balloons DARPA web

DARPA’s Network Challenge. The challenge was to be the first to submit the locations of 10 moored, 8-foot, red weather balloons at 10 fixed locations in the continental United States. DARPA photo

“We’ve been operating in a mode where every space launch we execute is a national event – requiring large amounts of planning, coordination, and financial resources,” noted Todd Master, manager of the DARPA Launch Challenge. “We look to a future use of space that shifts from strategic to tactical, with dramatically more frequent, low-cost access to orbit becoming the norm. The DARPA Launch Challenge is intended to show how that future can be realizable.”

High-profile competitions, challenges, and prize incentives have been conspicuously effective at motivating innovators to expand the boundaries of human performance and technology. Awards like the Emmys and Oscars have inspired creative individuals and communities to take their respective arts to new heights. The prestige and medals of the Olympic Games have driven thousands of competitors to deliver faster, higher, farther, and more capable athletic performance than ever. With its prize of helping the Allies win World War II, the Manhattan Project to beat German scientists and engineers in the race to nuclear weapons amounted to one of the most consequential technology challenges of all time.

Technology challenges have been providing incentive to inventors and innovators for centuries. Among the earliest, still most famous (surely partly because of Dava Sobel’s 1995 blockbuster book Longitude), and most transformative of the early technology challenges was the British government’s offer in 1714 of £20,000 (equivalent to more than $2 million today) to whomever would deliver a solution to the disastrous inability to determine longitude precisely at sea, a failing that routinely led to ship navigators being uncertain of their locations and thereby to extensive loss of life and property. A primary impetus for the prize and challenge was a wartime disaster on Oct. 22, 1707, in which 1,550 British sailors aboard four weather-defeated warships in the Isles of Scilly off the Cornish coast lost their lives, allegedly due in part to the navigators’ inability to accurately calculate their positions. No contender ever took home the award, but in several portions and most of it more than a half-century after the initiation of the prize, John Harrison, a carpenter and clockmaker, received compensation from the British government for his maritime chronometer that could provide navigators with at-sea timekeeping of unprecedented precision and stability.

It took Nicolas Appert, a chef, confectioner, pickle maker, and culinary innovator, only 15 years to collect the 12,000 franc prize (equivalent to more than $40,000 today) offered by the French government in 1795 for his invention of techniques to preserve large amounts of food. This was a capability that Napoleon Bonaparte, who famously said “an army marches on its stomach,” coveted to solve the problem of food shortages that had been limiting his military ambitions. Appert collected the prize in 1810 for what amounted to a sterilizing bottling technique that not only aided Napoleon’s hungry troops but also marked the beginning of modern food packaging.

A famous technology prize hastened the day of the first New York-to-Paris flight. After six aviators died and three others were injured in attempts to claim the $25,000 prize (equivalent to some $300,000 today) first offered in 1919 by New York City hotel owner Raymond Orteig for that transatlantic first, Charles Lindberg, in his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, captured the prize and world admiration in 1927. Like many technology prizes, the Orteig Prize triggered technology development investments that exceeded the value of the prize itself while also raising public interest and awareness of the wonders and opportunities associated with new technology, in this case advances in aviation.

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