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On the sidelines of SparkFun's Autonomous Vehicle Competition (video)

Brian Heater

We're a bit torn when we arrive at the Boulder Reservoir, past all the chain-linked signs warning of "potential danger ahead." The organizers of the Autonomous Vehicle Competition are running two separate tracks -- land and air -- and frankly, we don't have the resources to cover both. As the competitors scramble to complete last-minute repairs in the Team Pits area, we approach an employee in a red SparkFun T-shirt, to suss out the best plan of attack. "A lot of the aerial vehicles tend to fail in the first round," she answers, without much deliberation, "so it's probably best to start there." The organizers would've been hard-pressed to have constructed a more beautiful Colorado spring day, as "Come Fly With Me" wafts over the PA while spectators settle into the bleachers and competitors find spots at the edge of the gravel pit.

Thirty teams will compete for the $1,000 aerial grand prize. The task: taking off autonomously, staying within the allowed fly zone, dropping a tennis ball onto a thin sliver of land inside the reservoir, ducking beneath a goalpost-like wicket and landing on the same surface from where it took off -- and, as the name implies, all this must be done via a pre-programmed set of instructions without external control. The takeoff, it seems, is the hardest, as the first several competitors are knocked out of the contest, failing to launch in all sorts of spectacular fashions, including fixed-wing aircraft that just can't seem find their way into the clear Colorado sky, sliding along the gravel or twitching mechanically atop the PVC launchpad. When a quadcopter finally manages to lift off successfully, there's an audible sigh of relief amongst the crowd, followed by explosive applause. When it works, it's magic.

It's not entirely smooth sailing from there, of course, but by the end of the day, there's genuine surprise amongst attendees with regards to the number of craft that were able to navigate the watery course. All in all, it's a big change from previous years, when the event was housed entirely in the parking lot surrounding SparkFun's headquarters. "When it started, no one was finishing," says 3D Robotics' Chris Anderson. "We were just bumbling our way through it. They had five trees, and I think we hit three of them." The former Wired editor-in-chief chalks the relative success up to the level of professionalism involved amongst the gathered hobbyists, with many of the international attendees playing a large role in the burgeoning drone community, taking time away from high-profile engineering jobs to fly small craft above a reservoir in Colorado. It's an impressive collection of part-time professions, pulled together thanks in no small part to the previous day's DroneCon. The adjunct event was held in a classroom upstairs at SparkFun's office space, aimed at bringing together some top minds in the field.

DNP On the sidelines of SparkFun's Autonomous Vehicle Competition video

It's the latest addition to event, which seems to grow exponentially with each subsequent round. This year, for instance, marked the first time SparkFun didn't cap entries at 50, allowing 87 teams to enter vehicles -- it's an impressive expansion for an event that grew out of a bet between the component retailer's CEO and its director of engineering. Over on the rover side, there's a constant stream of races throughout the day. Vehicles every bit as diverse as their creators, and teams ranging from students to robotics professionals, compete in a sort of Pinewood Derby for grownups, attempting to autonomously complete four corners and navigate various obstacles in less than five minutes. As with the aerial drones, however, such tasks are easier said than done -- you can take as many trials runs as you want ahead of the competition, but there's no guarantee that all hell won't break loose the minute the mechanical gunshot sound is fired. One of the younger contestants we speak with -- a junior in high school -- describes it as a "magical curse." We're sure there's a more scientific explanation than that, but none of the frustrated entrants seem able to put their finger on it.

DNP On the sidelines of SparkFun's Autonomous Vehicle Competition video

By the time we catch up with Anderson, the exec is at the end of his own run, finally giving up the autonomous ghost in his own attempt to compete with the smallest, cheapest vehicle possible, all while 3D Robotics employees were taking on the bigwigs in the UAV course. "The fact that [they're] all hacking their own things means that we're sort of coming [at] it from the position of amateurism," he explains after a long day of perpetual tweaks to his tiny car. In the end, however, it's precisely that non-professional approach that lends itself so well to a helpful environment, where contestants exchange tips at the end of particularly successful runs. "I think the reason it is so friendly is that we're all just sort of hacking our way through the dark here," he adds.

DNP On the sidelines of SparkFun's Autonomous Vehicle Competition video

And really, for all the prize money and ominous warning signs at the entrance, the AVC is ultimately a meeting space for hobbyists in what may some day become a much larger movement. It's a place to experiment, talk shop and occasionally crash along the way.