Robots on their own in race
It's the ultimate robot reality show: Forty-three contestants battling for a spot in a government-sponsored desert race intended to speed...
The Associated Press
FONTANA, Calif. — It's the ultimate robot reality show: Forty-three contestants battling for a spot in a government-sponsored desert race intended to speed development of unmanned military combat vehicles, with a cash prize of $2 million.
The autonomous robotic vehicles began competing yesterday in the first of a series of qualifying rounds at the California Speedway. Half will advance to the Oct. 8 starting line of the so-called Grand Challenge.
The grueling, weeklong semifinals are designed to test the vehicles' ability to cover a roughly 2-mile stretch of the track without a human driver or remote control.
Participants ranging from souped-up SUVs to military behemoths will be graded on how well they can negotiate the rough road, make sharp turns and avoid obstacles — hay bales, trash cans, wrecked cars — while relying on GPS navigation and sensors, radar, lasers and cameras that feed information to computers.
The robots also have to heed speed limits in certain zones and pass through a 100-foot-long tunnel designed to temporarily knock out their GPS capabilities.
None of that thwarted the first competitor, a converted Nissan Xterra built by the Colorado-based Mojavaton team. The vehicle finished in about 20 minutes to cheers from the grandstands.
A modified Volkswagen Touareg dubbed Stanley raised the bar by navigating the course almost flawlessly in about 10 minutes. It was followed by a custom-built vehicle called NaviGATOR, a collaboration between the University of Florida, Gainesville, and Autonomous Solutions Inc.
A series of vehicles that came afterward stumbled and had to be manually driven off the speedway. One vehicle tried to go around two pieces of metal guardrail instead of between them and stalled. Another made an erroneous turn at the start and rammed into the wall.
Vehicles have at least two chances to loop around the speedway during the semifinals. The 20 finalists will be announced next week.
Of the 16 vehicles that ran the course yesterday, seven finished. During last year's semifinals, no vehicle completed the course in the first day.
The Grand Challenge is sponsored by the research arm of the Pentagon known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is spending $9 million on this year's event.
The competition is part of the Pentagon's efforts to have a third of the military's ground vehicles unmanned by 2015 to fulfill a congressional mandate.
This year's final race will cover about 150 miles of desert and mountainous terrain looping to and from Primm, Nev. Last year's inaugural race in the Mojave Desert ended without a winner. All the entrants broke down before the finish line.
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