Larry and Sergey founded Google because they wanted to help solve really big problems using technology. And one of the big problems we’re working on today is car safety and efficiency. Our goal is to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use.
So we have developed technology for cars that can drive themselves. Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard. They’ve driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe. All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles. We think this is a first in robotics research.
Our automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to “see” other traffic, as well as detailed maps (which we collect using manually driven vehicles) to navigate the road ahead. This is all made possible by Google’s data centers, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain.
To develop this technology, we gathered some of the very best engineers from the DARPA Challenges, a series of autonomous vehicle races organized by the U.S. Government. Chris Urmson was the technical team leader of the CMU team that won the 2007 Urban Challenge. Mike Montemerlo was the software lead for the Stanford team that won the 2005 Grand Challenge. Also on the team is Anthony Levandowski, who built the world’s first autonomous motorcycle that participated in a DARPA Grand Challenge, and who also built a modified Prius that delivered pizza without a person inside.
DARPA programme manager Mitch Zakin is pursuing what he calls “programmable matter”. These are so-called “mesoscale” mini-machines, a millimetre to a centimetre in size, that can arrange themselves to form whatever shape is desired. Initially, Zakin expects the outcome to be devices the size of small Lego pieces, but as the technology improves the modules and the machines assembled from them should scale down further. Ultimately you could tell a sack of “smart sand” what to do, and the grains would assemble themselves into a hammer, a wrench or even a morphing robotic aircraft. “It’s making machines more like materials, and materials more like machines,” says Daniela Rus, a robotics researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Scientists at Tufts University’s School of Engineering have demonstrated for the first time that it is possible to design such “living” optical elements that could enable an entirely new class of sensors. These sensors would combine sophisticated nanoscale optics with biological readout functions, be biocompatible and biodegradable, and be manufactured and stored at room temperatures without use of toxic chemicals. The Tufts team used fibers from silkworms to develop the platform devices.
The possibility of integrating optical readout and biological function in a single biocompatible device unconstrained by these limitations is tantalizing. Silk optics has captured the interest of the Defense Department, which has funded and been instrumental in enabling rapid progress on the topic. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded Tufts a research contract in 2007 and is funding Tufts and others on groundbreaking projects that could someday result in biodegradable optical sensing communications technology.
To form the devices, Tufts scientists boiled cocoons of the Bombyx mori silkworm in a water solution and extracted the glue-like sericin proteins. The purified silk protein solution was ultimately poured onto negative molds of ruled and holographic diffraction gratings with spacing as fine as 3600 grooves/mm.
The Tufts team embedded three very different biological agents in the silk solution: a protein (hemoglobin), an enzyme (horseradish peroxidase) and an organic pH indicator (phenol red). In the hardened silk optical element, all three agents maintained their activity for long periods when simply stored on a shelf. “We have optical devices embedded with enzymes that are still active after almost a year of storage at room temperature.