Robots Set to Race for $1 Million Prize

Red Whittaker would invite you to sit behind the wheel of his Humvee — except that it has no steering wheel, and no driver's seat.

Whittaker and his engineering students at Carnegie Mellon University have instead given it radar, LIDAR (laser ranging), GPS, stereo imaging, and a rack of onboard computers. The Humvee, nicknamed "Sandstorm," is completely robotic. If all its equipment works together properly, Whittaker's team could win $1 million — which would cover about a third of the cost of development.

This is what it takes to be a contestant in the "DARPA Grand Challenge," a race across the Mojave Desert this weekend. Its sponsor, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is the arm of the Pentagon that looks for leading-edge technology.

The object of the challenge is to send a robotic vehicle about 200 miles from Barstow, Calif., to Las Vegas, in 10 hours or less, without any human assistance. Two dozen teams are trying, though not all will survive the qualifying runs this week.

While any toddler can navigate across a back yard, it is a much more complicated job for a robot. Whittaker says it has to "calculate its way" across the terrain.

"To succeed, a machine has to think about where it is, where it's going, how to get there, how to stay out of trouble," he said. "It has to be an aggressive form of driving if it's going to win."

Wars of the Future

To an onlooker, the Grand Challenge may look like some student engineering project, but for DARPA, the race is a much more serious matter. Congress has mandated that by 2015, a third of all military vehicles should be robotic, i.e. able to navigate without a person at the wheel.

"We've reached a point where we're spending a billion dollars a day on defense, and most of that is for personnel," said Loren B. Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a Washington think tank." We've got to find a way of waging war more cheaply."

Moreover, DARPA has often been accused of throwing money arbitrarily at wild-sounding projects. For the Grand Challenge, it is trying something different. Yes, the first vehicle to run the course successfully gets a lot of money — but if there's no winner, there's no prize, and the government still gets the benefit of their ideas. Teams can keep trying until 2007.

The odds are daunting, but that didn't stop about 100 teams filing applications after DARPA announced the challenge in 2002. Some of the teams are from universities, such as the California Institute of Technology and the University of California at Berkeley. Others are from small companies with dreams of big government contracts.

Dune Buggies and Half-Tracks

Many of the contestants say they are impressed by their competitors' ideas. Several of the vehicles look like converted dune buggies. Some have four wheels, some have six, and a few have tracks like a tank. Some can ford streams, others can float. A few can flip over and right themselves. The entry from Berkeley may seem the most unlikely; it's a converted motorcycle.

The one thing many of them seem to have in common is that they still have bugs to be worked out. Last week Carnegie Mellon's "Sandstorm" took a turn too quickly and turned over; repairs are under way.

It all comes to a head early Saturday morning, when DARPA, for the first time, gives the contestants the actual path of the race. They will then have two hours to program their vehicles to follow it, and then, for 10 very challenging hours, everything will be out of their hands.

Red Whittaker, who has spent 30 years in robotics, smiled when he was asked if he would be nervous.

"Something I've always appreciated about robots is that in the moment of truth it's the machines that do the talking," he said. "And humans have nothing to do with it."