Much of the research and development the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) does for the US military is classified.
Seeking to tap into advanced research being done elsewhere, DARPA in 2004 created the $1 million DARPA Grand Challenge, a race of "autonomous" ground vehicles open to all comers.
No one even came close to finishing the course. While DARPA was pleased with the solutions racers offered to the problem of remote-control vehicle operation, some media called it a "roboflop."
Clearly, officials had to manage expectations for the $2 million, 131.6-mile DARPA Grand Challenge 2005. Tom Goodwin, president of Step One Communications, says when most people think of robots, they think of Hollywood-type creations and may not appreciate the science that goes into the vehicles.
Thus, the aim was to show how progress is being made. More broadly, Ron Kurjanowicz, program manager for the 2005 event, says the public nature of the race, which runs counter to traditional government contracting methods, was a way to generate excitement about autonomous vehicles and prompt interest from scientists in developing the technology.
Goodwin says the PR team for the 2005 race focused on reaching out to the media on a local, rather than national level, generating news reports in local newspapers and on TV stations about the individual teams around the country that were building autonomous vehicles with their own money.
In addition, the team also managed to lure an Associated Press reporter, who regularly covers technology and was particularly interested in the event, to attend the trial heats, which, along with the final race, were held in the Mojave Desert. The several AP articles that subsequently ran in publications around the world, along with a Web site that posted video of the trial heats, provided background for the national media when they researched the final race.
With about three weeks to go until the final race, Stratacomm was brought on to the PR team to assist in handling the increased number of media inquiries.
Many media outlets were on hand for the final event, which had 43 contestants and five finishers. The coverage not only gave DARPA national exposure and "branding [that] companies have told us they would die to get," Kurjanowicz says, but also benefited the participants. For example, Stanford University's engineering school, whose "Stanley" team won the race, reported a sharp increase in applicants as a result of all the media attention.
Dr. Tony Tether, DARPA director, said the first autonomous vehicle to be fielded by the military most likely will resemble Oshkosh Truck's TerraMax entry because the Army is already using the basic truck it's based on.
The $3 million DARPA Grand Challenge 2007 will present the added challenge of requiring autonomous ground vehicles to maneuver in heavy traffic.
The communications team to promote this is still to be determined.
PR team: DARPA Public Affairs (Arlington, VA) and Step One Communications (Vienna, VA), with Stratacomm (Washington)
Campaign: DARPA Grand Challenge 2005
Duration: April 2004 to October 8, 2005
Budget: About $150,000
This campaign worked because the PR team realized it initially needed to take a local, rather than national approach, leading up to the event, and that would translate into national coverage when the final race occurred. By spotlighting the various teams competing in the event locally, the effort was able to address the human interest angle. National outreach wasn't a lost cause; by leveraging its knowledge of the Associated Press reporter and his interest, the team was able to work the technology angle and generate what eventually translated into worldwide coverage.