- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 29, 2004

The race is on but there’s not a driver in sight. Instead, a motley fleet of robot vehicles is poised to lumber, buzz and scurry across the glittering sands between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

And that’s not all that glitters.

The Department of Defense has $1 million for the winner of “the Grand Challenge,” a Pentagon-sponsored, 200-mile race between the two cities featuring autonomous ground vehicles driverless transports that can follow a difficult terrain route without human interface.

They have become the dream machines of the Pentagon, which hopes that a third of its tanks, trucks and other vehicles can operate unmanned in the next decade.

The science behind it, however, has been slow off the line.

Enter the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the military’s haven for “imaginative, innovative and often high-risk research ideas,” according to the agency’s historical account (www.darpa.mil).

DARPA officials decided to pique public interest with a little old-fashioned competition.

Last year, the agency proposed a race open to anyone with “grass-roots American ingenuity” who could craft a robot vehicle. But DARPA gleefully eliminated typical military specifications, noting in a statement, “Who knows what could slither or crawl across the starting line?”

The nation will soon find out.

A week from tomorrow, 25 hopeful teams will meet in Barstow, Calif., to strut their stuff in preparation for the big race scheduled for March 13.

The contenders will have 10 hours to complete the lengthy race, which means they must average somewhere around 20 miles an hour over sand, rocks and bridges which is speedy for an unmanned craft. The Mars rovers, for example, only go one-tenth a mile per hour.

The vehicles include souped-up two-, four- and six-wheeled transports loaded with sensors, scanners, gyroscopes, radar, video cameras, obstacle detectors and computers that navigate a prescribed route through Global Positioning System devices and sensors. No remote-control devices are allowed.

“It’s not who comes in first or second. It’s about whether this can even be done,” said electrical engineer Umit Ozguner of Ohio State University, which produced “Terra Max,” a 2-ton, 9-foot-high military-grade truck that can literally drive itself.

Springfield-based Team Ensco, meanwhile, has converted an all-terrain vehicle with the help of engineers from five different research groups. California-based Axion Racing has produced “Kosrae,” a 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee that is “street legal and has differential GPS, FLIR, LADAR, RADAR, stereo vision cameras and computer.”

“Sandstorm,” a military Humvee from the “Red Team” at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, will “galvanize new visions for the role of robotics in the world,” according to team leader Red Whittaker.

Other entries include a converted Chevy Tahoe, a diesel hybrid and even “Ghostrider Robot,” a motorcycle entry from five University of California at Berkeley students who believe that a nimble two-wheeler can outmaneuver the trucks and also right itself in the event of a wipeout through a spring-loaded custom kickstand.

The teams estimate their various entries to be worth anywhere from a mere $89,000 to more than $3 million depending on the components, donated, in many cases, by the likes of Boeing, Raytheon or Honda.

Still, “vehicles must not damage the environment or infrastructure,” the DARPA race officials warn. The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered racers to mind the desert tortoises, fringe-toed lizards, ground squirrels and Mojave monkey flowers native to the region.

Are the autonomous vehicles equipped with, say, lizard detectors?

“Maybe we’ll sprinkle some granola on the ground,” offered one race planner during a recent meeting of final contenders.

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