For decades, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
has funded research and development efforts to push the envelope on military
technologies. Some of those projects, including the Internet, eventually ended up
in the commercial world.
But with budgetary pressures squeezing Defense Department priorities,
the opportunities to conduct far-reaching science and technology research may become
fewer and far in between as funding resources dry up.
Not wanting the nation to lose its cutting edge in innovation, the X
Prize Foundation, which has made headlines in recent years for running successful
competitions to build civilian spacecraft and 100 mile-per-gallon automobiles,
is creating more challenges and awards to spur advancements in a number of
industries, including robotics.
“We’ve gotten so risk averse in this country that it’s
killing us,” Peter Diamandis, the chairman of the X Prize Foundation, said at
the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in Washington, D.C. “You
cannot drive breakthroughs without taking risks. The day before something is
truly a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea.”
One of the newest X Prize contests picks up where DARPA left off in
its 2004 and 2005 Grand Challenges and the 2007 Urban Challenge to produce
driverless vehicles. The $10 million Autonomous Auto X Prize will be awarded to
a team that develops an autonomous automobile.
“Our goal is to create a competition where we’re going to pit
the best drivers around the planet against the best robotic vehicles,” he said.
They will compete in a dynamically changing course that simulates driving in
the real-world environment.
The effort is being underwritten by an undisclosed
automotive company. Diamandis hopes that the world’s automotive companies
and universities will go head-to-head in the competition.
“I’m personally excited about this because I’m tired of my
wife complaining about my driving,” he quipped during his speech.
The foundation also is organizing a competition for deep
ocean exploration. The James Cook X Challenge will center on building an
autonomous underwater vehicle to circumnavigate the planet with a set of sensors
to collect data. Diamandis hopes to attract entrepreneurs to participate, much
as they came forward during his SpaceX Challenge.
Finally, he is running a competition that Star Trek fans
The $10 million Tricorder X Prize challenges researchers to
develop a cell phone-size device that can run medical tests to help diagnose
sick patients. It must perform better than a group of 10 board certified doctors, said
Diamandis, who holds a medical degree.
The goal is to drive developments in
artificial intelligence and sensor technology.
If this goal is achieved, the device could connect to the
allow the Centers for Disease Control to track pandemic
outbreaks before they become critical.
“This is about pandemic protection and prediction, as well
as reinventing an entire healthcare industry,” he said.