To the Future…and Beyond

TRAVERSE CITY – A dedicated team of techies is working on a project designed to save the lives of U.S. soldiers in combat zones. The TC Robotics Club, a group of 40 young people and 10 adults, has been developing an autonomous vehicle – a driverless truck that would be able to negotiate through dangerous battlefield conditions to deliver fuel, munitions and supplies to troops. A huge percentage of combat deaths involve drivers, explains Paul Grayson, chief engineer of the Traverse City company American Industrial Magic (AIM) and a longtime volunteer advisor to the club. "Driverless cargo trucks could supply the front lines without risking the lives of troops," says Grayson. "Congress has required that one-third of all combat vehicles have this technology by 2015."

Grayson points to the high-profile case of Jessica Lynch as an example of how lives could be saved.

An army private, Lynch was a quartermaster driver in a convoy in Iraq in 2003 when she was injured and captured by Iraqi forces. Other members of her convoy were killed in the ambush. Lynch was rescued a week later by U.S. Special Operations Forces. The incident received considerable news coverage. Lynch's release was the first successful rescue of an American POW since World War II and the first ever of a woman. AIM has long been involved in developing driverless vehicles. The company designed and constructed three vehicles for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Challenge Series, a 2004-2007 competition of autonomous vehicle races that included routes across the hot Nevada desert and in a crowded urban setting.

The DARPA races drew dozens of teams from across the country, including the entries from AIM, whose vehicles ranged in size from a golf cart to a standard two-and-a-half ton army supply truck. Grayson is bringing his wealth of experience from that competition to assist the Robotics Club in its venture.

"Paul Grayson is a huge store of knowledge in robotics," says 53-year-old Greg Tompkins, a Traverse City native who's been a member of the robotics club for about three years.

Driverless technology has been used for many years in farm tractors, notes Tompkins, who comes from a farming background. His great-great-grandfather was one of the first farmers to plant cherries on the Old Mission Peninsula. But taking that basic system and adapting it to a military vehicle takes some intricate modifications. "We have to teach a computer to be an expert driver and then put it into the vehicle," explains Grayson. The club is trying to solve those problems at a bustling workshop on 4 Mile Road south of Traverse City. Rather than have a small team of club members focus on the large army truck, all of them are supporting the effort in some way. If they're not working hands-on, members help by keeping the shop clean or fetching materials. In addition to the science and computer education, it teaches teamwork and tenacity. Being involved in the robotics club and its projects can spark an interest in a scientific career for students, according to Grayson, a marine engineer. "This is an educational project, both inside the classroom and outside," he says. "This is the only sport where all the players can turn pro – they can become engineers, scientists, mathematicians and more. The kids leave here well launched (in the sciences)."