Teams of scientists, engineers and students from across the United States are gearing up for what may be the most unusual land race in the country: a contest run by robots vying to be the first vehicle to reach Las Vegas and win $1 million for its builders.
The race, known as the Grand Challenge, is the brainchild of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and aimed at boosting the development of autonomous vehicles that could find uses in the American military. Out of an original 86 applicants, 25 were selected by DARPA officials to run the race, with entries ranging from a group of California high-school students to members of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
DARPA will conduct the race in two parts in early March. First, a qualifying round will be held during the week of March 8 on the California Speedway track in Fontana, Calif., where race vehicles are expected to prove their autonomous driving and obstacle avoidance capabilities. Those that survive the trials will then move on the big show, a race from Barstow, Calif., to Las Vegas, with no one in the driver's seat but an onboard computer.
The cash prize will be awarded to the first vehicle to complete the course in 10 hours or less. If no entries meet that deadline, future competitions will be held annually through 2007, DARPA officials said.
"This is probably one of the best things I've done in my life," said Alex Gutierrez, an associate team leader with Red Team, the Carnegie Mellon entry. "This whole thing has been wonderful."
His team, led by Robotics Institute Professor William "Red" Whittaker, converted an 1986 military-surplus Humvee into Sandstorm, a robot vehicle capable of driving itself at speeds in excess of 45 miles (72 kilometers) per hour.
Grand Challenge robots are expected to be able to drive on paved and unpaved trails, while avoiding natural and human-made obstacles such as ditches, power line towers and open water.
DARPA race officials have tried to keep the final contest route a secret, though they have said it won't be longer than 300 miles (482 kilometers). Despite the best DARPA efforts, some possible routes have surfaced since the Grand Challenge was announced last year.
"There were several planned courses which were leaked or just made public," explained Jim Nista, a volunteer and team spokesman for CyberRider, a dune buggy-like vehicle developed in a garage in Irvine, Calif., by a group of robot enthusiasts led by engineer Ivar Schoenmeyer. "They're not easy trails, and have a lot of ups and downs."
The CyberRider team is touting its ground clearance, which is apparently quite high, though the team's leaders are keeping silent on an exact number until its time for the qualifying round. Nista said the vehicle uses multiple scanning laser beams and a radar system to detect obstacles, with a global positioning system capable of resolving its location down to half a foot (15 centimeters).
Such GPS systems should come in handy in the Grand Challenge, since the last contact any team members will have with their vehicles — physically or remotely — will be at the starting line when they press the "Go" button. The vehicles are expected to hit DARPA waystation points on the way to the finish line. Should a robot rover stray too far off course, it will be DARPA officials who shut the vehicle down remotely.
"You have to have some kind of mapping software, as well as some dead-reckoning ability," Nista told Space.com, adding that even if a vehicle fails and runs into a wall, there would still be some measure of success. "The worst thing that can happen for any of these teams is that they end up inventing something."
Anyone can join
By holding an open competition available for anyone interested, DARPA officials hoped to encourage innovative approaches to autonomous land rovers. "No one's really done this before," Nista said. "But then again, DARPA has never really opened up like this either."
DARPA did have some requirements for the race. Grand Challenge entrants were required to submit a technical paper on their vehicle by Oct. 13, and DARPA officials conducted 19 site visits to study some entries in more detail. But those regulations did not deter some Grand Challenge hopefuls.
"I'm confident in our team, and believe we have as good a chance as a lot of the guys out there," said Chris Seide, 17, overall project leader for the Palos Verdes Road Warriors. The team is made up of students, teachers and parents from Palos Verdes High School in Palos Verdes, Calif.
Seide told Space.com that his team's vehicle, a donated Honda Acura MDX outfitted with a laser-guided obstacle avoidance system, is going through some final tests before the upcoming trials. Students broke up into several teams to solve the various autonomous and administrative challenges to compete in the Grand Challenge.
"Whether we move a centimeter (during qualifications) and crash or not, it's not what motivates me," Siede said. "This is a true robotics program, which I don't believe any other high school in the nation has."
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