Teams gear up for million-dollar DARPA robot race

A week before the Defense Department's first autonomous vehicle race, 25 teams are scrambling to ready their vehicles for the run across the harsh Mojave Desert.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Grand Challenge race kicks off next Saturday, March 13, at 4 a.m. outside Barstow, Calif.

Once the robotic vehicles are given the route and final destination'just before the start of the race'they are entirely on their own. No remote-controlled operations will be allowed. The vehicles must find their own way to a finish line 200 miles away without human guidance.

'This is the first time an event on this kind of scale has ever been held,' said Bill Thomasmeyer, president of the Robotics Foundry, a Pittsburgh nonprofit economic development organization. The Foundry sponsors the Carnegie Mellon Red Team.

Starting Monday, DARPA will hold a week's worth of qualification runs to choose the final contestants at a speedway in Fontana, Calif.

Chris Pedersen, head of the Los Angeles AI Motorvators team, said he has spent too many late nights working out the final bugs. 'We're still getting everything together on the vehicle,' Pedersen said. 'We've tested systems, but we've still got a lot of work.'

Each team has its own strategy for the race and must develop or procure unique technologies to give its vehicle a winning edge. For AI Motorvator, the design strategy was simplicity. The seven-person team consciously avoided trying to make the vehicle too complicated to keep debugging as simple as possible, Pedersen said.

At least one group, the Red Team, is already out in the desert testing a vehicle named Sandstorm. The team experienced the challenging terrain first-hand during one run this week. 'Sandstorm mired in deep mud, buried below its belly armor. The wheels were peeking above the slop,' its Web site said. 'We have challenged Sandstorm before with tough circumstances. This is the first time Sandstorm could not self-extricate.'

A day later during another test run, Red Team's 1998 Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle flipped over. The team is now trying to repair the damage.

Computation plays a big part in the vehicles. The Red Team's Hummer observes its surroundings with radar, light sensors and Global Positioning System receivers. Onboard computers with Intel Xeon and Itanium processors extract data from the sensors to determine the best way to move forward. Seagate Technology Inc. of Scotts Valley, Calif., provided the shock-resistant hard drives.

The DARPA Grand Challenge will ultimately benefit defense programs such as Future Combat Systems' unmanned air and ground combat vehicles, Thomasmeyer said. 'In the long run, the only way unmanned vehicles can reach their full potential is to operate fully autonomously or semi- autonomously,' he said.

At least two Defense Department integrators are taking part in the race. The Red Team includes personnel and financial support from Boeing Co. and Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego.

DARPA is offering $1 million to the team whose vehicle first crosses the finish line. Observers doubt any vehicle will finish in this round, however. DARPA has said it will periodically hold other challenges until the prize is claimed.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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