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Robots fail to complete Grand Challenge

$1 million prize goes unclaimed

By Marsha Walton

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Robots fail desert challenge
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
Science and Technology

BARSTOW, California (CNN) -- Nobody won. Nobody even came close.

But that didn't stop organizers of the DARPA Grand Challenge from declaring an unusual race across the Mojave Desert a spirited success.

"We are an agency that takes risks, to push technology beyond what anybody thinks is possible," said Tom Strat, deputy program manager of the DARPA Grand Challenge.

"One of the best ways to motivate engineers is to tell them that there's something that can't be done. And what you saw today was people taking on that challenge and saying nah, it's not impossible, I'm gonna try."

"Even though nobody got more than about 5 percent of the way through the course, this has made these engineers even more determined," he said.

DARPA, the secretive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is best known for helping foster the Internet.

So a very public call for submissions for a robot that could tackle a 150 mile (241 kilometer)desert course piqued the interest of hundreds of people, from universities to scientific companies to garage tinkerers.

There's a mandate from Congress that at least a third of all military vehicles be autonomous by the year 2015. The answers were not coming fast enough for the agency, so it decided to dangle a one million dollar prize to all comers.

One hundred and six teams originally applied; that number was whittled to 25; and 15 teams made it to the starting line in tiny Barstow, California Saturday, hoping to make it to the finish line in Primm, Nevada.

The exact course was a secret until about three hours before the start of the race.

DARPA gave each team a CD with the latitude and longitude of about 2000 waypoints that could be located through the robots onboard GPS equipment. The course included utility roads, elevation changes, and some dramatic drops.

Spectators and media were kept off the official course, with the help of about 80 U.S. Marines and hundreds of volunteers.

The Bureau of Land Management worked for more than a year evaluating possible environmental damage the robots might do.

The Mojave Desert is home to the endangered desert tortoise. DARPA's 20 biologists evaluated the course to make note of any tortoise burrows close to the race course, and set up temporary protective barriers around them.

But with the quick end to the race, DARPA says no pens or animals were disturbed and the pens are being removed.

Miles five through to eight turned out to be bot-killers.

According to DARPA's final data:

"Vehicle 22 Red Team (Carnegie Mellon): At mile 7.4, on switchbacks in a mountainous section, vehicle went off course, got caught on a berm and rubber on the front wheels caught fire, which was quickly extinguished. Vehicle was command-disabled."

"Vehicle 21 SciAutonics II: At mile 6.7, two-thirds of the way up Daggett Ridge, vehicle went into an embankment and became stuck. Vehicle was command-disabled."

"Vehicle 9 The Golem Group: At mile 5.2, while going up a steep hill, vehicle stopped on the road, in gear and with engine running, but without enough throttle to climb the hill. After trying for 50 minutes, the vehicle was command-disabled."

The rough course was meant to imitate the real-life dangers and difficulties a vehicle would encounter, say on a mission from Kuwait to Iraq or Kabul to Kandahar, said Strat.

Once each "bot" left the starting line, it was on its own; no human intervention was allowed.

Each robot had a chase vehicle that included an experienced off-road racer in the driver's seat, and a DARPA official. The DARPA representative could pause a vehicle, or hit a "kill" switch to end its journey.

Just looking at the sizes and shapes of the robots made it clear that there are wildly different thoughts about what would make a safe and efficient autonomous vehicle. Terra Max is a 32,000 behemoth; the "Blue Team" is a small motorcycle.

"Some of the vehicles were able to follow the GPS waypoints very accurately; but were not able to sense obstacles ahead, and we had some collisions at the qualification rounds," said Strat.

"Other vehicles were very good at sensing obstacles, but had difficulty following waypoints or were scared of their own shadow, hallucinating obstacles when they weren't there," he said.

It will be DARPA's job, said Strat, to blend the best of these ideas and put them together.

Gary Carr, leader of the ENSCO Team, said there was definitely relief with the end of the project, mostly because of lack of sleep.

"We were working full time on the weekends, and every evening after a full eight hours of our regular job," he said.

Many of the sleep-deprived and caffeine-filled participants still partied at Buffalo Bill's Casino, the finish line that none of the robots reached on their own.

DARPA is expected to hold another challenge, possibly in 2006. And many of the participants in this year's contest say they can hardly wait.

"We will be here," said Carr. "Our vehicle will be different, but we will be here," he said.

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