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  • No Winners in Desert Robot Race
Mar 2004
PRIMM, Nev., March 15 -- No one won the Darpa Grand Challenge, an attempt to send robots where no robots had gone before.

However, hundreds of onlookers in Barstow, Calif., had a glimpse of the battlefield of the future Saturday as the fifteen autonomous robotic ground vehicles that participated attempted to navigate a rugged 142-mile course across the Mojave Desert.

Darpa (Defense Advance Research Projects Agency), the Pentagon's research and development agency, would have awarded $1 million to the first team whose microcircuit-studded vehicle could cover the course, from Barstow, Calif., to Primm, in less than 10 hours. Most entries broke down within sight of the starting line, and one held out for just over seven miles.

DESERT SANDSTORM: "Sandstorm," Carnegie Melon's modified Hummer was waylaid by a broken axel. (Photo: Carnegie Melon University Red Team Racing)
   Anthony Tether, director of Darpa, said, "Although none of the vehicles completed the course, and we were not able to award the cash prize, we learned a tremendous amount today about autonomous ground vehicle technology."

Boundaries defined the course, and vehicles that went outside of them were disqualified. Each vehicle was followed on the course by a manned control vehicle equipped with an emergency stop system. One of the early favorites, a military Humvee converted by Carnegie Mellon University students, managed to travel 7.4 miles before veering off course and snapping an axle during the race.

The 15 teams, representing a wide variety of backgrounds, organizations and regions of the country, were selected after a week-long series of tests that determined their ability to safely navigate and avoid obstacles while running autonomously at California Speedway in Fontana. Participants included teams from Carnegie Mellon, the California Institute of Technology, the Oshkosh Truck Corp. and Ohio State University.

The Pentagon foresees using computer-run, remote control-free robots to transport supplies in war zones. Darpa, which spent $13 million on the robot race, estimates competitors -- some with big corporate sponsors -- spent four to five times that amount developing their entries, which rely on global positioning satellites and sensors, lasers, radar and cameras to orient themselves and detect and avoid obstacles.

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