October 8, 2005 8:08 AM PDT

Excitement revving as robot race gets under way

PRIMM VALLEY, Nev.--Here in the Mojave Desert in a parking lot behind Buffalo Bill's casino, there's a rare scene that's part college tailgate party, computer science fair, robot car show and big business-military schmoozefest.

It's the eve of the second-annual DARPA Grand Challenge, a $2 million military-sponsored desert race that tests the endurance of driverless robots. Twenty-three teams from across the country have made it to the finals, from nearly 200 original applicants and 43 teams that competed in the eight-day semifinals last week at the California Speedway.

In a stretch of Burning Man-like camps of trucks, tents and modified cars of all shapes and sizes, clusters of computer science students are making last-minute tweaks to their vehicles and strategizing for Saturday's race, which starts at 6:30 a.m. PDT.

Granted, the teams won't know exactly the course they're running until two hours before start time. So the first team taking off, Carnegie Mellon University's H1ghlander, will be given course details at 4 a.m. The computer software engineers from CMU's robotics department have a mandatory in-bed time at 7 p.m. Friday so they can wake up at 3 a.m., have breakfast, get the GPS byways from DARPA, and then lock themselves in the team trailer to create exact maps and speeds for the 10-hour race.

Indeed, CMU is like the Microsoft of the competition, a role even one of the team's professors admits. Team leader Red Whittaker is widely thought of as an industry leader in the field of robotics. The team has two vehicles, Sandstorm and H1ghlander, in the race. One will take off in first position as the fastest car of the lot, and the other, Sandstorm, will begin in third position, approximately 20 minutes later.

CMU was the reigning champ of the first Grand Challenge, but that wasn't saying much. The modified HUMMV only made it little over 7 miles in a 144-mile race. Still, CMU has the biggest presence at this year's event, with two large trailers, more than 100 team members and a corporate-like tent with food and drinks showing off sponsors Caterpillar (maker of mining engines) and Target.

Hopes are high this year that there will be a winner, meaning that at least one robot will finish the 165-mile desert course in less than 10 hours. If several finish, the winner will be gauged on how fast it runs the course, according to DARPA officials.

There's even a little superstition going on. Many teams have good luck charms on their robots. CMU's Sandstorm has a stuffed bear affixed to the top of the Hummer, guarding its radar and sensors. H1ghlander has a stuffed beaver. And Virginia Tech has a miniature R2D2 on its small robot Rocky. "If anything goes wrong, R2D2 fixes it," one grad student on the team said, tongue-in-cheek.

That Virginia Tech team differs from most others in the competition because it's largely made up of mechanical engineering majors, as opposed to computer science students. The team built Rocky largely with a graphics program, using visual graphs, as opposed to writing lines of code, team members said.

Truth is, all the robots have improved dramatically since last year's race, said DARPA Director Tony Tether. Talking to teams around the parking lot, everyone seems to agree that because they've had more time to prepare since last year, they've been able to improve the software and systems needed to make a driverless vehicle travel relatively well in unforeseen conditions. Tether said they're able to "analyze" situations better so that they can drive more accurately, rather than swerving too far one way to avoid an obstacle only to run into a rock.

Still, some teams are raw. The Gray Team from University of Tulane, which is running a modified Ford Escape hybrid called GrayBot, has been working on its car for only the last five to six months. "We had to deal with two hurricanes so that didn't give us much time to test the robot," said one team member.

GrayBot is one of the only robots to use solar panels, which are laid on a metal top of the car, as an alternative power source for the car, if needed.

Another team, Axion Racing, has set up a Vegas-like party scene around its vehicle, with fake palm trees, portable game chairs and cut-up fruit trays.

Some of the tent areas are empty because of a pre-race kickoff party with barbecue, beers and country-western music that has been echoing off the mountains.

Still, it seems hard not to think of anything but cars.

Volkwagen has a presence at the race as one of the sponsors of Stanford Racing Team. It donated a Touareg V5 to be modified and become "Stanley," which is racing second in the lineup Saturday.

Volkswagen's DARPA tagline says it all: "Drivers not required."

 

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