Finalists named in DARPA's Grand Challenge robotic race

Finalists named in DARPA's Grand Challenge robotic race

FONTANA, Calif.'The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency today made the final cut of autonomous vehicles to participate in its million-dollar Grand Challenge race tomorrow.

Of the 25 finalists, 15 will be on the starting line for the world's first long-range autonomous vehicle race.

Throughout the past week, DARPA has held qualification runs at the California Speedway in Fontana, Calif. The agency was testing the machines largely to make sure they were safe, DARPA director Anthony Tether said.

The trials got off to a rocky start, with many of the teams' vehicles failing to complete or only partially completing the course. A number of finalists did not complete the entire final run but were qualified from partial runs.

The Grand Challenge race goes for 200 miles on- and off-roads in the desert between Barstow, Calif., and Primm, Nev., outside Las Vegas. The terrain has obstacles such as steep slopes, sand, unpaved roads, ridge tops, underpasses and other hindrances. DARPA chose the route to mimic the terrain that military convoys might encounter, such as in Iraq, said Thomas Strat, deputy program manager for the event.

What makes this race unusual is the fact that once an autonomous vehicle is set in motion, it must find its own way to the finish line. Most of the vehicles are commercial, such as pickup trucks and all-terrain vehicles, although all are equipped with sensors and custom software. On-board processors must reconcile the route each vehicle is instructed to take against the obstacles it comes across. No human intervention is allowed.

'The teams lost control of their vehicles as of this morning,' Tether said. 'If a vehicle decides to go over a ravine, it will go over the ravine.' Tether added, however, that if a vehicle might endanger the safety of humans or wildlife, it can be stopped remotely by a DARPA control team following close behind.

DARPA set the challenge in hopes of developing technologies for vehicles and other machinery to operate in complex environments. Such vehicles would prove invaluable, for example, to move supplies into combat areas without putting people in harm's way.

By holding a public contest, DARPA is getting many more people to work on this problem, Tether said. Although DARPA has invested about $13 million into the race'including the $1 million prize'the agency expects that the value of research undertaken for the race might be valued at four or five times that amount. The race itself may also inspire other individuals to work on machine autonomy, Tether said.

The first vehicle will be launched at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time Saturday. Starting times will be staggered in five-minute intervals. The starting order was set in order of the vehicles' likelihood of completing the course, as judged by DARPA reviewers.

The 15 qualifying teams, in their starting order tomorrow, are:

  • Red Team from Carnegie Mellon University of Pittsburgh

  • SciAutonics II of Thousand Oaks, Calif.

  • Team Caltech of Pasadena, Calif.

  • Digital Auto Drive of Morgan Hill, Calif.

  • Virginia Tech of Blacksburg, Va.

  • Axion Racing of Westlake Village, Calif.

  • Team CajunBot of Lafayette, La.

  • Team ENSCO of Falls Church, Va.

  • Team CIMAR of Gainesville, Fla., and Logan, Utah

  • Palos Verdes High School RoadWarriors of Palos Verdes Estates, Calif.

  • SciAutonics I of Thousand Oaks, Calif.

  • Team TerraMax of Oshkosh, Wis.

  • Team TerraHawk of Gardena, Calif.

  • Golem Group of Santa Monica, Calif.

  • Blue Team of Berkeley, Calif.

More information about each team is online. DARPA will track the event live tomorrow at its Grand Challenge site.

About the Author

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

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