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Sunday, March 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Robot race fizzles close to starting line

By Andrew Bridges
The Associated Press

A self-navigating motorcycle collapses just before its team is able to demonstrate its computer-assisted balance capability yesterday at the Darpa Grand Challenge, a race across the Mojave Desert.
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BARSTOW, Calif. — Looks like we won't be seeing any robot driver's licenses issued anytime soon.

All 15 self-navigating vehicles in a 150-mile race across the Mojave Desert were knocked out within a few miles of the starting gate yesterday, victims of technical glitches, barbed-wire fences and rugged terrain.

None could claim the $1 million prize offered by a military agency seeking to develop autonomous vehicles that could be used in combat.

One of the early favorites, a military Humvee converted by Carnegie Mellon University students, traveled 7.4 miles before veering off course and snapping an axle.

The most successful robot, which managed to travel eight miles, belonged to SciAutomics, based in Thousand Oaks, Calif. The team was sponsored by Elbit Systems, an Israeli manufacturer of off-road vehicles.

"It was supposed to be challenging. We knew it would be challenging," said Jan Walker, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon agency that sponsored the race. "We're involved because it's a technology we really need to push forward."

The Pentagon is trying to meet a congressional mandate to convert one-third of its battlefield vehicles to autonomous operation by 2015 to save soldiers' lives.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, spent $13 million on the Grand Challenge. It estimates competitors laid out a total of four to five times that amount developing their entries, which rely on global-positioning satellites and a variety of sensors, lasers, radar and cameras to orient themselves and detect and avoid obstacles.

"I don't think the money is the motivation," said Anthony Tether, Darpa's director. "It has sparked an interest in science and technology in this country that we haven't seen since the 1960s with the Apollo program."
The agency may host another contest, probably in 2006.

Most of the vehicles yesterday made it less than a mile before stalling, overturning or running off course. One six-wheel robot built by a Louisiana team was disqualified after it became entangled in barbed wire. Others crashed seconds after starting.

"It's a tough challenge — it's a grand challenge — you can always bet that it's not doable. But if you don't push the limits, you can't learn," Ensco engineer Venkatesh Vasudevan said shortly after his company's entry rolled onto its side several hundred yards from the starting gate.

The Pentagon's research and development agency would have awarded $1 million to the first team whose vehicle could cover the course in less than 10 hours.

The teams were given a map of the course two hours before the start. It included hundreds of waypoints marked by precise coordinates. Team members were not allowed to steer or touch the robots.

Carnegie Mellon's Humvee was the first to set out on the brush-and-boulder-dotted course soon after dawn. It took off at a fast clip. Within 15 minutes, the vehicle dubbed Sandstorm had covered about seven miles over mostly flat desert, but it stalled near the tiny town of Daggett.

The race ended in about four hours after the final competitors were disabled. Competitors suffered a variety of problems, including stuck brakes and malfunctioning satellite-navigation equipment.

Virginia Tech's converted golf cart failed within 100 yards of the starting line when its brakes seized up. It was driven off the course by 23-year-old senior Nick Elder.

"Our vehicle knew where to go, but our brakes were holding us back," the disappointed Elder said.

The trials last week gave a preview of what was to come yesterday. Some machines would not start, and some drove in circles like dogs chasing their tails. Twenty-one teams attempted to qualify, but only seven completed a flat, 1.36-mile obstacle course at the California Speedway in Fontana, east of Los Angeles. Some teams were allowed to compete yesterday without finishing the obstacle course.

The on- and off-road course, which began in Barstow, was to have ended just across the California line in Primm, Nev.

One competitor said the goal wasn't necessarily to complete the race.

"From my opinion, it's always been a question of how far you can get," said Palos Verdes High School sophomore Kevin Webb, 16. The school's entry, a modified Acura SUV, hit a barrier shortly after crossing the starting line.

Details on Darpa and the qualifying trials were reported by The New York Times.

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