I've been fascinated by the DARPA Grand Challenge, won in October by a team from Stanford. The January issue of Scientific American has an article, Innovations from a Robot Rally, which is a must for every red-blooded gadget freak, it goes into detail about how the various teams solved their technical issues. (The link above is to the article on the SciAm site, but you could just go buy the magazine. In fact, if you want to see the photos and diagrams, you have to get the magazine; it's only $11 - in the U.S. - and they're worth it.) Between March 2004 and October 2005 these teams went from no vehicle even completing the course (I don't think any entry got farther than 3 miles), to 4 vehicles doing 132 miles in under 8 hours: the winning time was 6 hours 53 minutes. That's an average speed of just over 19 MPH.
Some of the most interesting tweaks weren't even done by the winning team:
One of the obvious problems was, how do you track where the robot is? The obvious answer is, give it a GPS, or maybe several; but how do you track distance and direction if it gets into a canyon where the GPS signal is blocked? The team of high school students from Palos Verdes, CA (yes, they competed) developed something they call a GroundMouse, based on the principle behind optical mice: with a camera, a bright light, and an optical tube, they built a 2 dimensional odometer with 1 millimeter accuracy in any horizontal direction. (The team staffed by professional engineers built something similar, but they used a Doppler radar. Isn't money nice?) I love 2 things about these kids: first, that they tried at all. Second, that their solution used stuff you could buy at Radio Shack. There's hope for the next generation yet!
The Indy Robot Racing Team solved a problem that won't even (really) exist until autonomous vehicles go commercial, if they ever do, but without this solution or something like it, they never will: these guys built a network protocol for swapping "plug and play" sensors and software modules in and out of their vehicle. They built the interface. Them's my kind of engineers! (Disclosure: I used to be a systems programmer.)
These are not the only fascinating technical solutions: you have to see the picture of the one with the bank of 64 lasers on the vehicle roof, on a motorized circular platform, spinning 10 times a second, and backed by a bank of signal processors programmed in Assembler. Obstacle detection: could spot something the size of a person at 500 feet.
I strongly recommend any fellow techno-weenies out there to take a look at this article.