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.