Early problems end $1 million robot race

Sunday, March 14, 2004

BARSTOW, Calif. -- Looks like we won't be seeing any robot driver's licenses issued anytime soon.

All 15 self-navigating vehicles in a 150-mile race across the Mojave Desert were knocked out within a few miles of the starting gate Saturday, victims of technical glitches, barbed-wire fences and rugged terrain.

None could claim the $1 million prize offered by a military agency seeking to develop autonomous vehicles that could be used in combat.

One of the early favorites, a military Humvee converted by Carnegie Mellon University students, managed to travel 7.4 miles before veering off course and snapping an axle during the race.

"It was supposed to be challenging. We knew it would be challenging," said Jan Walker, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon agency that sponsored the race. "We're involved because it's a technology we really need to push forward."

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency spent $13 million on the Grand Challenge. It estimates competitors laid out a total of four to five times that amount developing their entries, which rely on global positioning satellites as well as a variety of sensors, lasers, radar and cameras to orient themselves and detect and avoid obstacles.

A grand challenge

Most of the vehicles Saturday made it less than a mile before stalling, overturning or running off course. One six-wheeled robot built by a Louisiana team was disqualified after it became entangled in barbed wire. Others crashed seconds after starting.

"It's a tough challenge -- it's a grand challenge -- you can always bet that it's not doable. But if you don't push the limits, you can't learn," Ensco Inc. engineer Venkatesh Vasudevan said shortly after his company's entry rolled onto its side several hundred yards from the starting gate.

The Pentagon's research and development agency would have awarded $1 million to the first team whose vehicle could cover the course in less than 10 hours.

The teams were given a map of the course two hours before the start. It included hundreds of waypoints marked by precise coordinates. Team members were not allowed to steer or touch the robots.

Carnegie Mellon's Humvee was the first to set out on the brush-and-boulder-dotted course just after dawn. It took off at a fast clip. Within 15 minutes, the vehicle dubbed Sandstorm had covered about seven miles over mostly flat desert, but it stalled near the tiny town of Daggett.

The race was over in about four hours after the final competitors were disabled. Competitors suffered a variety of problems, including stuck brakes and malfunctioning satellite-navigation equipment.

Virginia Tech's converted golf cart failed within 100 yards of the starting line when its brakes seized up. It was driven off the course by 23-year-old senior Nick Elder.

Twenty-one teams attempted to qualify in trials earlier this week, but just seven completed a flat, 1.36-mile obstacle course at the California Speedway in Fontana, east of Los Angeles. Some teams were allowed to compete Saturday without finishing the obstacle course.

The on- and off-road course, which began in Barstow, was to have ended just across the California line in Primm, Nev. With no entries finishing, the agency could host another contest, probably in 2006.

One competitor said the goal wasn't necessarily to complete the race.

"From my opinion, it's always been a question of how far you can get," said Palos Verdes High School sophomore Kevin Webb, 16.

Their entry, a modified Acura SUV, hit a barrier shortly after crossing the starting line.

On the Net: http://www.grandchallenge.org/

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