March 12, 2004 | 2 p.m. ET
Robot pole position: Carnegie Mellon University’s Red Team has captured the pole position for its robo-Humvee in the $1 million DARPA Grand Challenge.

Fifteen autonomous vehicles will compete in Saturday’s robotic road race across the Mojave Desert, from Barstow, Calif., to Primm, Nev. The finalists, ranging from a 9-foot-tall behemoth called TerraMax to a modified motorcycle called Ghostrider, will have to find their own way through a course that won’t be revealed until two hours before start time. The length of the odyssey could range from 150 to 210 miles. If any ’bot completes the course in 10 hours of less, the winner will receive $1 million from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Here’s the lineup: Red Team, SciAutonics II, Team Caltech, Digital Auto Drive, Virginia Tech, Axion Racing, Team CajunBot, Team ENSCO, Team CIMAR, Palos Verdes High School Road Warriors, SciAutonics I, Team TerraMax, Team Terrahawk, the Golem Group and the Blue Team (with the Ghostrider).

Saturday’s starts will be staggered, with a five-minute interval between each start. That means the Red Team, which posted the fastest time during qualifiers at the California Speedway in Fontana, will have a clear field ahead.

“For rumbling into the desert, the pole’s a nice place to be,” Red Team leader Red Whittaker, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon, told as he packed up for the trip to Barstow. “It allows for deliberation, strategy, and the thing the Red Team treasures most — to run our own race.”

Stay tuned for a full report on the Grand Challenge preparations later today. In the meantime, check out a report on one of DARPA’s other high-flying ideas at Noah Shachtman’s Defense Tech.

March 12, 2004 | 1 a.m. ET
Robotics' Magnificent Seven: On the final day of qualifying trials for the Pentagon's $1 million robotic road race , three additional teams completed the not-all-that-grueling obstacle course at the California Speedway in Fontana, bringing the final lineup to at least seven.

Thursday's three new qualifiers were a modified Jeep Grand Cherokee 4x4, fielded by Axion Racing and nicknamed the Spirit of Kosrae; the Team D.A.D. Grand Challenge vehicle, a Toyota Tundra truck that was retrofitted by Digital Auto Drive; and the TerraMax, a 6x6 military vehicle that's nearly 10 feet high.

As they rolled over the 1.25-mile gantlet, the vehicles had to dodge boulders, junked cars and barriers, rumble down a grassy knoll and get over a variety of obstacles. For a human driver, the course would be a piece of cake — but these contraptions had to find their way without real-time human guidance. Instead, they relied on sensors and actuators linked by autonomous-navigation software.

Two vehicles that had made it through the course earlier in the week — Team Caltech's SUV named Bob, and the Red Team's Sandstorm — took a second full turn through the course. Sandstorm reportedly completed the course in less than seven minutes and traveled at up to 39 mph, a blazing speed for a 'bot.

Several vehicles partially completed the obstacle course, but two groups, Team Phantasm and Team CyberRider, officially dropped out of the race.

All this is leading up to today's announcement of the final lineup for the DARPA Grand Challenge. In addition to the teams already mentioned, Virginia Tech and Team SciAutonics II have completed the course — meaning that there will be at least a Magnificent Seven at the starting line on Saturday.

“This week has produced a major milestone in this history-making project,” said Air Force Col. Jose Negron, program manager for the competition. “We have seen significant daily improvement in the teams being able to navigate the course of the QID (qualification, inspection and demonstration). We are looking forward to having a capable and diverse field of vehicles in Saturday’s pioneering Grand Challenge.”

In drawing up the race lineup, the judges will consider the vehicles' ability to traverse the course safely, as well as their ability to navigate autonomously and avoid obstacles. The selected teams, which may include some that didn't finish the Speedway course, will gear up for a trip from Barstow, Calif., to Primm, Nev., a marathon that could run from 150 to 210 miles, depending on precisely which routes are selected.

If any robotic vehicles complete the challenge in less than 10 hours, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will give the winner $1 million. If none of the robo-cars make it to the finish line within 10 hours — a likely prospect — the prize will roll over to the next challenge, probably in 2006.

Stay tuned for the final lineup and the starting order later today.

March 11, 2004 | 2 a.m. ET
Robo-car quartet: The $1 million DARPA Grand Challenge is now officially a real race: On Wednesday, three more robotic vehicles qualified for this weekend's desert run, joining Carnegie Mellon University's Sandstorm in the lineup. Still more machines could be added in the next couple of days as qualifying trials continue at the California Speedway in Fontana.

The three new qualifiers are Team Caltech, which is fielding a highly wired Chevy Tahoe SUV nicknamed Bob; Team SciAutonics II, which modified an Israeli-made Tomcar dune buggy called Avidor 2004; and Virginia Tech's team, which is using a 4-wheel-drive Ingersoll-Rand utility vehicle named Cliff.

All of the vehicles had to negotiate a 1.25-mile obstacle course at the Speedway untouched by human hands. Several other robo-cars in the field of 20 finalists made it partway through the course Wednesday, Grand Challenge spokesman Don Shipley told

"It's really getting exciting," Shipley said.

The robot challenge has even turned a few heads down the road, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Arizona State University planetary geologist Philip Christensen, a member of the science team for the Mars rover mission, has his own dream for an interplanetary contest. In the "Christensen Grand Challenge," the prize would go to the first team to build a rover capable of circumnavigating the Red Planet.

As he looked at a picture of the TerraMax entry, a robotic truck as big as a fire engine, Christensen observed: "This is the class of vehicle that might be necessary to do that."

NASA is already talking about setting aside prize money for as-yet-unspecified Centennial Challenges, modeled in part on the DARPA Grand Challenge. What kind of high-tech contest would get your juices flowing? Send in your suggestions, and I'll pass along a selection of the feedback.

March 9, 2004 | 9:30 p.m. ET
Robot challenge gets grander: One of the favorites in the Pentagon's $1 million robot road race , Carnegie Mellon University's Sandstorm, today became the first driverless vehicle to qualify for Saturday's big event. The modified military Humvee, fielded by Carnegie Mellon's Red Team, made it through the 1.25-mile obstacle course at the California Speedway handily, only to hit a sliding gate at the very end.

Even though Sandstorm didn't coast through the finish line, the organizers of the DARPA Grand Challenge said the performance was good enough to qualify.

It's increasingly clear that some vehicles will be allowed to compete Saturday even if they don't make it all the way through the gantlet devised for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

There is also a growing sentiment that Saturday's course through the Mojave Desert, which will not be revealed in detail until two hours before the race, may run closer to 150 miles than to the previously stated 210 or 300 miles.

Generally speaking, the qualifying trials went better today than on Monday, MSNBC's Jim Seida reports. Several teams got out of the starting chute, and Team SciAutonics II made a particularly good showing.

The Speedway's course in Fontana, Calif., is strewn with obstacles that must be gotten "over, around or through": concrete slabs, a cattle crossing, a bed of gravel, a downhill stretch on a grassy knoll, two junked cars, an underpass and gaps between gates. The last one is a killer: Just as the robo-car approaches an open gate, racetrack workers push the sliding gate closed. The exercise is aimed at determining how well the robot would recognize a moving obstacle, such as a car moving through an intersection.

Image: Sandstorm
Jim Seida  /
Sandstorm crashes into a metal gate at the end of its qualifying trial for the DARPA Grand Challenge.
To get through, the robo-car would have to recognize the moving obstacle, wait for workers to slide the gate back, then proceed. Sandstorm didn't wait — but the judges apparently have decided that when it comes to qualifying, the gremlin gate counts only as "extra credit."

This week's Cosmic Log mailbag includes a question from my brother Steve: "Inquiring minds here in Cascade, Iowa, want to know: How do the robot-car controller people know whether they are about to smash into another car, go off the road, etc.? Is there a TV camera showing them what the car 'sees,' or do they use some kind of GPS location system, or what?"

Several methods will be used to avoid a robo-pileup: First, the vehicles are equipped with stereo cameras, laser range-finders and/or radar to survey their surroundings. They also have GPS receivers to determine where they are. In fact, the teams will all have to plot their course using the GPS coordinates they get from DARPA on the morning of the race. The real trick is having the onboard software to take in all that data and avoid obstacles (such as huge boulders, other vehicles or desert fauna) while they are traveling upwards of 20 mph).

Each start will be staggered by five minutes on Saturday to provide separation between competing vehicles. Also, each vehicle will be shadowed by a truck carrying a race official who will be equipped with an electronic device capable of pausing or shutting down the vehicle if it gets in trouble.

When you get right down to it, one of the main aims of this week's trials was to make sure that the "E-Stop" devices worked and that no one would get hurt on Saturday. No one, that is, except the robots.

The fine print: Looking for older items? Check the Cosmic Log archive. Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with Alan Boyle. If you link to this page, you can use or as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.


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