Move Over DARPA: X Prize is Here
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 will appreciate. 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 cloud and 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.