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Contest Ends in Fall of the Machines

Pentagon-sponsored race ends quickly for 15 unmanned vehicles.

March 14, 2004|Daren Briscoe | Times Staff Writer

The rise of the machines suffered somewhat of a setback Saturday as a fleet of high-tech, unmanned vehicles demonstrated the ability to plow into fences, get snarled in barbed wire and even self-immolate, all unaided by human hands.

Played out in the unforgiving sands of the Mojave Desert, the ill-fated spectacle was actually a competition sponsored by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which specializes in cutting-edge, high-risk ventures with the potential for military application.

DARPA's "Grand Challenge," as it was billed, was to create an autonomous robotic vehicle that could traverse the desert after literally being left to its own devices, aided only by whatever hardware and technology it could carry.

To encourage innovation and spur participation, the agency offered a $1-million prize to whomever could design such a machine, build it and then step aside while the contraption found its way to Primm, Nev. The contest began, and ended, in Barstow. Before the starting gun went off, the 15 vehicles took their positions, poised to aim for the finish line 142 miles away. But soon after, the gleaming gadgetry -- enough to stock a small warehouse -- succumbed to fires, crashes and stalls. The converted Humvee didn't make it out of the city. Neither did the machine that looked like a golf cart on steroids. The fleet managed only a combined 29 miles of travel.

But despite the 'bots that got lost, those that never moved and those that drove in aimless circles before being shut down, organizers and participants cast the whole affair as a, well ... as a smashing success.

"I consider it an absolute success. Our goal was to spark interest in science and technology in this area, and there is no question about the success of that," DARPA director Anthony Tether said later.

The marathon that wasn't was scheduled to begin at 6:30 a.m., and the early morning scene was straight out of a science fiction movie, with a small army of technicians and computer programmers buzzing around their creations in the dim dawn light. The crowd, including brainy college kids, PhD hobbyists and professional specialists in autonomous vehicles, was appropriate because the technical obstacles, according to all involved, were huge.

Teams were given the exact course coordinates only hours before their staggered starting times. And vehicles were required to hew to an exacting set of requirements. Any deviation from the prescribed course, any violation of a 60 mph speed limit, was grounds for disqualification.

And even with the most sophisticated equipment, including sonar, gyroscopes and global positioning systems, the vehicles were hard-pressed to avoid all of the Mojave's low-tech vagaries, from electronics-choking dust to wheel-swallowing gullies.

After being selected from a field of more than 100 applicants, the 15 teams participating were actually the success stories. And many admitted to somewhat limited expectations from the beginning.

"Our chances of finishing in under 10 hours are nil because of the speed limit," said Caltech senior Will Heltsley, 22.

He said before the competition that his team hadn't had time to program its modified 1996 Chevy Tahoe, nicknamed Bob, to do much more than 20 mph.

Bob crashed through a fence after little more than a mile, presumably at under 20 mph, only to be disabled by a trailing safety team.

Other participants took the confident approach, even in the face of disaster. "We were headed for Primm," insisted William "Red" Whittaker, 55, a robotics professor from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, whose Red Team was considered the favorite before the competition began.

Red Team's entry, a modified military Humvee nicknamed Sandstorm, was equipped with scanning lasers, radar, eight embedded computers and a customized suspension.

At 6:32 a.m., Sandstorm, the first vehicle to depart, issued a low growl before rolling down the dirt track around a bend and off into the desert. A few minutes later, Sandstorm was still chugging even after crushing a corrugated metal gate at an observation point about two miles from the start. But after logging a mere 7.4 miles, the low-slung machine was undone when its front wheels caught fire after snagging on an unidentified obstacle.

Palos Verdes High School's Acura MDX sport utility vehicle made a beeline from the starting line to a retaining wall. The trip lasted a few seconds.

DARPA's ultimate goal is to ensure that by 2015 one-third of the armed forces' ground combat vehicles are unmanned, fulfilling a congressional mandate.

DARPA officials said bringing together such a group of technophiles, gear heads and military enthusiasts would lead to advances in technology that would bring them closer to that goal.

But Paul Contratto, who was hacking the brush outside his uncle's home adjacent to the starting line, was less than enthusiastic about the whole affair.

Gripping a rake with sweat drenching his blue tank-top, Contratto, 33, said he found the unaccustomed crush of military vehicles in the area unnerving.

He didn't like the idea of computer chips replacing human drivers even in war zones. "That stuff scares me," Contratto said.

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