Robots Compete For $2 Million DARPA Prize

Twenty-three unmanned ground vehicles have qualified for the Defense Advanced Research Agency's Grand Challenge this weekend. The robots will race across 150 miles.

K.C. Jones, Contributor

October 6, 2005

4 Min Read

Tires spun, bales of hay caught fire, and robots crashed, but 23 unmanned ground vehicles have qualified for the Defense Advanced Research Agency's Grand Challenge this weekend.

The robots, built by teams from New York to California, will race across 150-miles on an undisclosed route, traversing dry lakebeds, speeding over steep mountain terrain, and ambling around obstacles on the desert route. The route is being kept secret until two hours before the race, expected to begin at 6:30 a.m., PDT, Saturday, near Primm, Nev.

The professors, students, engineers and other experts who designed the robots aren't just competing for the pride that victory bestows.

DARPA, the agency that launched the federal government's effort to build the Internet, is offering a $2 million prize to the group whose robot is the first to complete the route in less than 10 hours.

But that's not why William "Red" Whittaker, named by Science Digest as one of the country's Top 100 U.S. Innovators, is doing it. Once named Pittsburgh's Man of the Year in Technology, he holds 16 patents and has written or co-authored more than 200 publications. He has been out West all week, leading competitors from Carnegie Mellon University.

"I was born to do this," he said in a phone interview Thursday. "I love it. I am enchanted by the idea of machines that sense and think and act to work in the world -- machines that farm, machines that explore, machines that mine. It's like flying to the moon, or flying to Paris for the first time. No one has done it yet, so no so it's not clear what it takes to get the job done. It's not just about one race or one date."

DARPA Director Tony Tether said the technology behind the robots could someday save lives. The military wants one-third of its vehicles to be driverless by 2015. The research behind the Minivans, Volkswagons, Fords and light strike vehicles bobbing, weaving, and turning over obstacles and around sharp bends could be put to use on battlefields.

Cameras, radar and sensors "see" the route and sense obstacles, customized software, and GPS with dead reckoning, guide the machines over the rugged terrain, through tunnels, past garbage cans and around hay bales in their path.

Professionals get to show off their robotics, software and other technology products and skills.

Students and professors from Carnegie-Mellon, the California Institute of Technology, Virginia Tech, Stanford University and Cornell University, get to display their skills as they face off against each other.

Michele Gittleman, project manager for Red Team, based at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, described the event as "Desert Rock meets geeks to the extreme."

"Last year there were all of these guys on motor cycles who ride on those desert rocks all the time, watching us, wondering how we were going to try to do this," she said in a phone interview Thursday. "There were a lot of college students. This year, the playing field is a little less amateur and a little more professional."

Gittleman's team is led by Whittaker. He has received several awards, including the Engelberger Technology Award, the Laurels Award for outstanding achievement from Aviation Week and Space Technology.

"Robot work has taken me to all the continents, both poles, on great adventures, to nuclear cleanups," he said. "We're building the leaders of tomorrow. I actually love these young technologists. It's an extended community with lots of those people who are the real inheritors, the next generations to come, and Saturday's their day."

This past week has been their proving ground. Some hit bales of hay and spun their wheels until the hay caught fire. One hit a concrete wall at over 60 miles-per-hour, according to participants' updates on the Grand Challenge site.

Still this year's contestants – from a pool of 195 teams - have been faring better than their counterparts from last year, when all entrants failed to complete a 7-mile race. Tether said in a prepared statement that he expects this year's race to leave last year's performance "in the dust of the Mojave."

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