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Eyes on $1-Million Prize for Robot Ground-Vehicle Race

February 23, 2003|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

It was, admittedly, an unusual crowd.

There were off-road racers with cherry-red leather jackets, skilled in maneuvering two-seater trucks across harsh desert terrain. There were graduate students, tall and lanky, their pasty complexions evidence of hours spent holed away inside laboratories. And then there was the robot racing crowd: grown men skilled in the art of remote-control circuitry, and in equipping small vehicles with flamethrowers and chain saws.

But in the Petersen Automotive Museum on Saturday, surrounded by hot rods and ornate cars, they were chatting like long-lost friends. Only if they worked in teams could any of them ever meet the challenge they had just heard issued.

The federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency had promised $1 million -- tax free -- to the group that, in 13 months, could build and race an unmanned ground vehicle from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.

There were whispers that hovercraft might do the trick. Bouncing spheres with gyroscopes were also suggested, as were octopus-like vehicles with legs that sweep across the terrain, traversing potential hazards when necessary.

Some of the 400 conference attendees, including movie special-effects gurus and mini-celebrities who had won big on TV's war of the robots, were forthright about their plans. They showed off detailed color designs and discussed how to build navigation algorithms that might win them the prize. Others proved to be stone-faced competitors, remaining silent as radical ideas were floated in their presence.

"We have a list of 20 concepts we are trying to evaluate, to see if they're even realistic or possible," said 22-year-old Anthony Levandowski, a graduate student in industrial engineering at UC Berkeley. He had come to the daylong conference, sponsored by the defense agency, with a friend from college, Randy Miller, 21, who is now studying engineering at Stanford.

The two said they were at the conference to learn the rules of the competition and to form a team with other eager participants.

The Pentagon agency, which helped create the Internet, the stealth bomber and "smart bombs," is sponsoring the contest in part to meet a government mandate that at least one in three Army battle systems soon be unmanned. The organization plans to publish the technical schematics of all competitors' vehicles after the race in March 2004.

"It's a huge challenge," said Miller, who was hoping to integrate the "bot" project (short for robot) into his graduate studies. "This is like in the 1960s, going from bottle rockets to going to the moon. I think it's possible. The course can be driven by a human driver. The tricky part is getting a computer to drive."

Because federal rules call for contestants to build a vehicle that can maneuver the 250-mile course without remote control, without radio and with little previous knowledge of the layout or nature of the course, Reinhold Behringer was a hot commodity at the "teaming forum," a meet-and-greet held at the end of the day.

Behringer, 39, originally from Germany but now living in Thousand Oaks, is a computer vision expert. That means he's skilled at creating the kinds of sophisticated programs necessary for a computer to guide itself through a course that will include water crossings, underpasses and miles of harsh desert terrain.

He had posted his name and resume on a bulletin board in search of a team to help in its pursuit of the prize.

"I've worked on [an unmanned] vehicle in Germany that did 110 mph on a roadway," he said. "I'm confident about doing a similar thing here."

As soon as Valerie Mendenhall noticed Behringer's resume, she went looking for him. Mendenhall, a systems engineer and one of the few women attending, was at the conference to support her husband, Todd, who was organizing a team he had nicknamed TerraHawk.

The six-person team had a software specialist, a couple of aerospace engineers and a sensor expert. But the members were hoping to add someone skilled in road recognition and obstacle avoidance. They had given Behringer a two-page breakdown of their preliminary design.

An hour into the forum, Behringer had barely touched the amber bottle of Bud Light in his hand. He madly glad-handed the other members of TerraHawk, who stood in a cluster around him. They were dressed in identical black polo shirts, emblazoned with the name of their team in blue above the heart.

"So you would build the bot yourself, not take an SUV and convert it?" Behringer asked Todd Mendenhall.

"Correct. Other teams do that, but that's not us," Mendenhall said.

TerraHawk had some leads on funding its work -- an advantage for a project that many at the conference estimated could eat up more money than the million-dollar purse.

But the thrill for other participants was the idea that even mere hobbyists -- weekend mechanics who tinker in their garages for fun rather than profit -- were eligible to compete in the challenge.

Mike Eliot, 25, of San Pedro was one such enthusiast. His day job is in finance, but he also considers himself an inventor.

"I want to volunteer for a team," Eliot said, adding that he still had his doubts about whether a successful unmanned vehicle could be built in so short a time.

As Daryl Davidson scanned the room, he said he was thrilled with the turnout and with the crowd's enthusiasm. As executive director of the Assn. for Unmanned Vehicle Systems, he has sponsored smaller-scaled unmanned vehicle contests for students.

"If you talk to the contestants here, you get a mixed reaction," he said. "Some say it's doable; others think it can't be done."

The point of the event, he said, was to come up with innovative ideas, both to serve the country and to advance science.

"David can beat Goliath if they've got the right approach," Davidson said.

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