Racing Across The Desert For $1M

Members of the Rover Systems team work on their entry in the robotic vehicle race Monday, March 8, 2004, in Fontana, Calif.
They're a motley bunch of garage tinkerers, off-road enthusiasts, high-school students, physicists and programmers who hope their microprocessor-jammed jalopies usher in the next generation of military combat vehicles.

The question is, can any of these meticulously engineered, unmanned autos actually make it across the Mojave Desert on their own?

On Saturday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's few-holds-barred research and development arm, will award $1 million to the first team whose robotic vehicle can cover a rugged desert course from Barstow, Calif., to Primm, Nev., in less than 10 hours.

The vehicles in the so-called Grand Challenge, part of Pentagon efforts to have one-third of all ground vehicles unmanned by 2015, cannot be controlled remotely. They've got to navigate all by themselves.

"It's a marriage of the geeks and the greaseballs," said Sal Fish, a longtime desert off-road race promoter and the lead designer of the course. "If they go even two miles, I'll be in awe." Five teams dropped out of the competition even before qualifying runs began Monday, leaving 20 entrants.

Two hours before the race begins, DARPA will give competitors a CD-ROM with Global Positioning System coordinates that chart the eastward course.

A DARPA vehicle will be assigned to each robot contestant, with a judge ready to hit a kill switch if it goes astray. Helicopters will also monitor the action.

DARPA officials are considering several possible routes along dirt roads and rough trails, ranging from 150 to 210 miles. Even the shortest course would require the robots to average 15 mph, a feat that has eluded major defense companies.

Several of the robots are capable of 65 mph but obstacles along the way will require them to go much slower as they rely on combinations of orientation devices ranging from GPS satellite positioning to digital compasses, ultrasonic scanners and gyroscopes.

If no one finishes on time - a likely outcome, many participants say - DARPA will host another contest, probably in 2006.

All eight teams that took part in Monday's trials failed in their first try at finishing a flat obstacle course a little longer than a mile that was strewn with bricks, gravel patches and metal rods.

Only two teams - from the California Institute of Technology and Palos Verdes High School in a wealthy suburb of Los Angeles - made it very far past the starting line on their first attempt. The other six had immediate mechanical problems and were making modifications before trying again.

The other 12 teams were making their first runs Tuesday and it was expected that the field would be winnowed.

Warren Williams of Baldwin, Mo., who calibrates precision manufacturing tools by day and plays with remote-controlled robots in his spare time, was desperately seeking radar for his converted Kawasaki all-terrain vehicle. Without the radar, the robot can't spot some roadblocks and must limit its speed to about 5 mph.

Even the most feared competitor - Carnegie Mellon University's "Red Team" - has been racing against the clock after its 1986 Hummer rolled over during practice last week, forcing quick repairs on antennae, sensors and other parts.

The team, whose sponsors include Intel Corp. and Boeing Co., is led by William "Red" Whittaker, who used robots to explore Antarctica in 1993 and map a 3,500-foot corridor in an abandoned Pennsylvania mine last year.

Among other contenders was a partnership of Oshkosh Truck Corp. and Ohio State University whose 16-ton, off-road Marine transport vehicle can handle 60 percent grades and push through five feet of water, according to team leader Jim Fravert.

Other entrants are using modified sport utility vehicles, dune buggies and ATVs.

Participants say the key to success is how well sensing devices feed data to the onboard computers. If they work properly, the sensors should be able to tell a boulder from a tumbleweed and determine whether a ravine is too deep to cross.

But coordinating sensors with navigation and steering systems has been a daunting challenge.

"Everyone thinks they have a solution to the problem of how to handle the flood of data," said Bill Zimmerly, who wrote software for 28 years and helped design the Kawasaki ATV entrant. "At these speeds, no one has been able to do it."

DARPA outlined plans for the Grand Challenge 13 months ago and had 106 applications by November before it narrowed the field.

In addition to military uses, technologies growing out of the race could eventually find form in such inventions as collision avoidance systems for cars or automated farm equipment.

"It's not only conceivable, but it's expected that commercial applications for this technology will emerge," said Darrell Davidson, executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which includes a number of major defense companies.

By Elliot Spagat