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Humvee in Pole Position in DARPA $1M Robot Race

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Humvee Converted by Carnegie Mellon Team Has Pole Position in $1 Million Mojave Desert Robot Race

BARSTOW, Calif.March 12, 2004; Andrew Bridges writing for the AP reported that a driverless Humvee converted by Carnegie Mellon University students snagged the pole position Friday in a first-of-its-kind competition that pits 15 self-navigating robots against one another in a $1 million race across the Mojave Desert.

The Pentagon's research and development agency will award the prize to the first team whose microcircuit-and-sensor-studded vehicle can cover a rugged, twisty desert course of at least 150 miles in less than 10 hours on Saturday.

Race sponsors said it was unclear if any one of the competitors would be able to claim the taxpayer-funded prize.

Of the 21 teams that attempted to qualify over four days of trials, just seven completed a flat, 1.36-mile obstacle course at the California Speedway in Fontana, east of Los Angeles.

"There are at least three or four who will have a very good chance of finishing the course; whether they finish it in 10 hours is another question," said Tony Tether, director of the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

"I don't know what the odds are in Vegas," he said.

DARPA, as the agency is known, is sponsoring the Grand Challenge to foster development of autonomous vehicles that could be used in combat. Defense officials foresee using the driverless, remote control-free robots to ferry supplies in war zones.

"The main purpose of this is to harvest the new technology you see out there and use that new technology on the battlefield of tomorrow," said Col. Jose Negron, race program manager for DARPA.

The agency spent $13 million on the race. It estimates competitors laid out four to five times that amount on developing their entries, which are loaded with the latest in sensor and navigation technologies.

The race course begins in Barstow and ends just across the California state line in Primm, Nev. Most of the race covers public land, both on- and off-road.

Friday afternoon, each team demonstrated its vehicle for a crowd of several dozen people. Some of the performances didn't bode well for the upcoming race.

Golem I, a black pickup truck entered by a Santa Monica team, sped out of a gate straight into a white concrete barrier that brought it to a sudden stop.

All the vehicles rely on global positioning satellites as well as a variety of sensors, lasers, radar and cameras to orient themselves and detect and avoid obstacles.

Umit Ozguner, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Ohio State University, said the sensors on his team's 32,000-pound truck easily mistake bushes for more substantial objects.

"We have this thing about not trampling bushes, which slows us down," he said of the robot sponsored by Oshkosh Truck Corp. "If we can take care of that, we can go a far way."

Carnegie Mellon's Sandstorm, a highly customized Humvee, is the favorite and will be the first entry out of the gate on Saturday.

"A big part of the battle is getting that position," team administrative coordinator Michele Gittleman said, adding that dust kicked up by competitors can skew a vehicle's ability to accurately navigate itself.

Other competitors include a converted Jeep and self-balancing motorcycle.

"We are going to give it our best shot. My feeling is it will be very difficult for any team to complete the course," said Jim Fravert, project engineer for Team TerraMax, whose entry is a six-wheeled truck built by Oshkosh Truck Corp.

Competitors won't be given the route their vehicles must follow until two hours before their staggered start times.

To ensure safety, the robots can be paused during the race, stopping the 10-hour clock without penalty. That raises the possibility the competition could stretch into Sunday, officials said. A chase vehicle will tail each robot, with a judge ready to hit a kill switch if the robot goes astray.

"We're going to give these robots every chance we can to make it," Tether said.

If no one finishes, the agency will host another contest, probably in 2006.