Mon, Mar 15, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Robots race for Pentagon cash

WAR GAMES Fifteen robots lumbered and wobbled across the Mojave Desert on Saturday in a race to develop driverless vehicles for the battlefields of the future

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BARSTOW, CALIFORNIA

Team CajunBot prepare their autonomous robotic ground vehicle before the start of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Grand Challenge Field Test from Barstow, California, to Primm, Nevada, on Saturday.

PHOTO: EPA

Fifteen robot vehicles took off across the Mojave Desert starting at dawn on Saturday, dodging boulders and tortoises in search of a place in scientific history and US$1 million in Pentagon cash.

The 228km race over some of the most forbidding terrain on the planet was sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the Pentagon's own skunk works that spawned the Internet, the Predator drone and the stealth fighter.

The top qualifier, Red Team Sandstorm, sped out of the starting line at the SlashX ranch, south of Barstow, to the cheers of several thousand spectators, and quickly reached speeds of 32km an hour. Other vehicles followed at five-minute intervals.

Within an hour, however, the course began to take its toll. Sandstorm, based on an Army surplus Humvee and put together at the robotics laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University, was the first casualty, as it veered off course down an embankment. When Sandstorm returned to the course, it burned out a mechanical part.

Shortly afterward, David, the entry from Ensco Incorporated in Falls Church, Virginia, struck a bush and rolled over. The Acura MDX entry from Palos Verdes High School in California failed to make a turn at the start, ran directly into a barrier and was out of the race.

Less than four hours after the race began, all vehicles had either crashed or been demobilized. The most successful robot belonged to the team SciAutomics, based in Thousand Oaks, California. The team was sponsored by Elbit Systems, an Israeli manufacturer of off-road vehicles. The SciAutomics vehicle managed to go 12.8km.

No one won the cash prize, which required finishing the course within 10 hours.

The competition, announced a little over a year ago, gave birth to some of the strangest contraptions ever built: computer-laden mechanical monstrosities that began life as golf carts, dune buggies, hybrids, luxury sports utility vehicles, all-terrain vehicles, a motorcycle and a 16-ton military truck.

They went by the names Terrahawk and TerraMax, Ghost Rider and Doom Buggy, Golem and Ladibug, Cliff and Bob. The rules required the vehicles to traverse the difficult course without human intervention. These were meant to be true autonomous vehicles, not remotely piloted machines or drive-by-wire craft like the Predator.

The Pentagon is trying to meet a congressional mandate to convert a third of its battlefield vehicles to autonomous operation by 2015 to save soldiers' lives.

Major military contractors and computer companies backed some of the teams, but others had only their children's inheritances and hundreds of hours of sweat equity behind them.

The trials last week gave a preview of what was to come on Saturday. Some machines would not start, and some drove in circles like dogs chasing their tails.

The only motorcycle wobbled 9m and flopped on its side. The driverless vehicles routinely ran over warning cones and slammed into concrete barriers and vehicles that had been placed along the course as obstacles. Even the most perfect trial ended its run by knocking into a barrier it was supposed to sense and avoid.

The race attracted an assortment of dreamers, hucksters and high school hackers, off-road racers and BattleBot warriors, crackpots and visionaries.

The project manager for DARPA is a straight-arrow Air Force colonel, but the contestants "are a marriage of the geeks and the greaseballs," as one of the organizers put it.

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