Stanford robot beats CMU in desert race
Monday, October 10, 2005

Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press
The Stanley crossed the finish line first (above) and the Stanford team celebrated yesterday after the result became official (below).
Click photos for larger images.

Grand Challenge

Byron Spice's web-only dispatches from the Mojave:
The flag drops and the robots are off ...
Robotic race crews gather for $2 million rumble in the desert

For more about the race, check out these links:
Carnegie Mellon's Red Team
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Race Day site

And for more background on the race:
DARPA's Grand Challenge site
Post-mortem on CMU's entry in last year's race

PRIMM, Nev.-- In the end, five robots completed all 131 miles of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Grand Challenge desert race, four within the 10-hour time limit, but only one took home the $2 million prize: Stanford Racing Team's vehicle, Stanley.

Completing the largely dirt road course in 6 hours, 53 minutes, the modified Volkswagen Touareg edged out Sandstorm, the veteran racing machine of Carnegie Mellon University's Red Team, by 11 minutes. The Red Team's other entry, H1ghlander, finished third at 7 hours, 14 minutes.

"To see five finishers up here is incredible," said DARPA's Grand Challenge project manager, Ron Kurjanowicz. "No one would have predicted five finishers."

DARPA Director Anthony Tether likewise was pleased with the outcome, which came 18 months after no vehicle made it more than about 7 miles in the first Grand Challenge.

"It takes this technology to a level that's hard to believe," he said. "These are capabilities with meaningful missions."

"This has been mind blowing," agreed Sebastian Thrun, a former Carnegie Mellon professor who headed the Stanford University team.

William "Red" Whittaker, leader of the Red Team, said following closing ceremonies at noon Pacific time that he still didn't know what happened to H1ghlander, the more capable of the team's robotic vehicles, which began the race in the pole position. Teams were allowed to take possession of their vehicles again only after the ceremony.

H1ghlander had been programmed to finish the race at least 40 minutes earlier than it did. In 11 previous long-distance runs, the machine had never varied from its plan by more than two minutes, he said.

About halfway through the race, H1ghlander fell off its pace and seemed to be having trouble climbing hills.

Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press
As dawn broke before the beginning of the race, H1ghlander, the more capable of the CMU's robotic vehicles, was in the pole position.
Click photo for larger image.
Dr. Whittaker said Sandstorm had been programmed to run a more conservative race than H1ghlander and completed the course as planned. "We sent it out there as Tail-end Charlie," in case H1ghlander's hotter program resulted in unforeseen problems, he said. Sandstorm could have run much faster than it did, however.

"Sandstorm had a huge margin beyond what it did [Saturday] ... It could have cruised this course."

The race began Saturday morning with 23 vehicles. Four vehicles finished the course by twilight, and 18 others dropped out, but one, a heavy truck named TerraMax, did not have a full 10 hours before the course was closed and was allowed to resume its timed run yesterday morning.

It was unknown until the closing ceremonies, however, who actually was in the lead, though Stanley had crossed the finish line first Saturday afternoon.

What was accomplished this weekend was still beyond the reach of robotics in February 2003, when DARPA announced the Grand Challenge. Though the Pentagon's expectation was that a third of its vehicles would be autonomous by 2015, the fact remained that most robotic ground vehicles were still remote controlled.

Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press
H1ghlander speeds by a Jersey barrier positioned as an obstacle.
Click photo for larger image.
Those designed to operate autonomously -- without direct human guidance -- moved only tentatively. Sensors couldn't see too far down the road, which limited speeds, and sometimes the computer software that analyzed the sensor input had trouble distinguishing between benign roadside clutter and obstacles -- or, conversely, between a shadow on the road and a hole in it. And the machines had trouble making basic driving decisions, such as how to maneuver around obstacles.

Some of the technology developed for the competition will translate directly into commercial products. Gary W. Schmiedel, vice president for advanced products engineering at Oshkosh Truck, which helped field Team TerraMax, said the stereo vision/laser rangefinder guidance system developed for TerraMax will undoubtedly become a product for Oshkosh in some form.

"We see a real need for it," he said. TerraMax was based on a Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement chassis, a hulking, six-wheeled truck that is a workhorse for the Marines and the Navy's Seabees. Oshkosh has sold more than 7,000 of the vehicles, with at least 1,000 deployed to Afghanistan. The MTVR already uses electronic controls for controlling the throttle and transmission; adding the automated steering and braking necessary for robotic operation isn't much of a stretch.

Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press
Team members check a real time animation of the position of a vehicle projected on a 3D aerial solid terrain modeling map of the DARPA 2005 Grand Challenge.
Click photo for larger image.
Certainly, some of the team sponsors, such as Red Team sponsors Boeing and Science Applications International Corp., are interested in that military market. But the technologies are more broadly applicable. Automated agricultural equipment, robotic mining equipment and driving aids, such as devices that help a car stay within its lane, are examples.

Dr. Whittaker said he plans to begin work on an automated fence-minding machine, which can cut weeds and place fence posts. He also expressed interest in reviving efforts to build a moon exploration robot.

Robotic ground vehicles also will move indoors; motorized walkers that could guide the elderly around a nursing home or hospital, or personal care robots that help care for the sick or elderly in their homes, are among the possibilities.

How much of that is related to this weekend's race out in the desert will be hard to discern as the technology continues to grow and expand, Dr. Tether acknowledged.

"Fifty years from now," he mused, "probably no one will remember that DARPA had a Grand Challenge."

Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press
CMU Red Team member David Ray places a DARPA medal on a team mascot attached to Sandstorm.
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First published on October 10, 2005 at 12:00 am
Byron Spice can be reached at or 412-263-1578.