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Racers, Start Your Software, and May the Best Robot Win

October 05, 2005|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

The riderless motorcycle tore out of the chute and promptly plowed into a tin barricade.

Then, to the amazement of hundreds of spectators at Fontana's California Speedway, the 90cc Yamaha named Ghostrider picked itself up and sped away.

A year ago, 15 robot competitors participated in the Defense Department's first million-dollar challenge to design a vehicle that could drive and navigate without a human controller.

It was a humiliating display, with only one robot managing to go seven miles before breaking down.

If this was the best the bots could do, the supremacy of mankind over wires and circuits was in no danger.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 07, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Robotic vehicles -- An article in Wednesday's Section A about a race of robotic vehicles said the TerraMax was built by Oshkosh Truck Corp. and Ohio State University. The vehicle was built entirely by Oshkosh Truck.

But as Ghostrider demonstrated at qualifying trials for this year's race, the computers have gotten a lot smarter in 18 months.

"It was far better than my personal expectations," said Anthony Tether, head of the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is sponsoring the race.

The DARPA Grand Challenge is scheduled to take place Saturday, starting and finishing in Primm, Nev. Twenty contestants will try to complete the course of up to 175 miles to win a $2-million prize, twice as large as last year's.

The robotic vehicles have 10 hours to complete the course, using only their own sensors and computer brains. The layout of the course is being kept secret until two hours before the race starts.

The goal of the challenge is to spur development of autonomous vehicles that can operate in dangerous environments, such as war zones.

"That's what it's all about: a whole bunch of those things on the Baghdad highway, resupplying our troops," an announcer said as the largest entrant -- a 37,000-pound, six-wheel truck made by the Oshkosh Truck Co. and Ohio State University called TerraMax -- rumbled through the course.

In last year's qualifying event, only seven teams completed the course.

This year, at least four times as many vehicles finished a tougher, two-mile qualifying course, squeezing through gates, maneuvering past obstructions and passing through a steel-lined tunnel that interfered with the vehicles' global positioning systems.

"One of the vehicles was perfect -- it hit no obstacles, no gates," Tether said after the first run last week, referring to Stanford University's entry, Stanley.

A Volkswagen sport utility vehicle outfitted with cameras, laser guidance systems, an inertial system that functions like an inner ear to keep the vehicle oriented, and six computers, Stanley zipped through the course in less than 11 minutes, barely slowing for rental cars parked in its path.

"That is a world record," Tether said.

The 43 competitors for the qualifying round, which ends today, came from 15 states. They included 17 universities, a high school and a few private companies, such as A.I. Motorvators from Los Angeles, whose entry, It Came From the Garage, really did.

With a beer keg stuck on the back and an on-off switch labeled "Brain," it looks very much like an old hot rod and is about as low-tech as you get in this competition among buttoned-down engineers and Caltech grad students.

It has one computer brain. "We try not to have a whole bunch of sensors," said former actor and long-haired race car driver Chris Pedersen, the team leader. "It adds complexity."

Unlike its competitors, A.I. Motorvators has few corporate sponsors. Pedersen estimates that his team is $200,000 in debt.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Red Team of Carnegie Mellon University, considered the team to beat in the competition.

Their sponsors read like a Fortune 500 list: Boeing Co., Caterpillar Inc., Intel Corp., Snap-on Inc., Google Inc. and others. They have the resources to enter two vehicles, Highlander and Sandstorm, a modified Humvee that traveled the farthest of any last year.

"Carnegie Mellon is the team everybody loves to hate," Jerry Fuller of UCLA's team said. "They're well-funded. They're a little cocky. They have uniforms."

Red Team's compound hums like a well-oiled machine. Its air-conditioned trailer is outfitted with plush couches and all the soda you could drink.

Outside, on a covered patio, is a big flat-screen television. Dashing here and there are dozens of students in red hats and T-shirts, vaguely resembling Dr. No's private army.

Dr. No himself, however, turns out to be a sweet, hulking robotics professor.

William "Red" Whittaker, 57, eschews the idea that the competition is a blood sport. Contestants are part of a fraternity "up to big things together," said Whittaker, who raises cattle on a ranch outside Pittsburgh.

His vehicles have already run long distances during practice sessions in the desert, but there is no guarantee something unforeseen might not happen on race day. A week earlier, Highlander hit a rock, flipped and had to be substantially rebuilt.

Still, he said proudly, "On Highlander's worst day, it's good enough."

There were several sentimental favorites, such as Ghostrider, which became a crowd pleaser for pluckily hopping back up when it fell over.

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