Stand by for Real Robot Wars after Pentagon’s Desert Contest

October 10th, 2005 - by admin

Chris Ayres / The London Times – 2005-10-10 23:34:16,,11069-1819278,00.html

PRIMM, NEVADA (October 10, 2005) — An obstacle course completed by four robotic vehicles has signalled the arrival of driverless motoring in a feat as significant as the Wright brothers’ maiden air flight.

Four robotic vehicles made technological history by completing a 132-mile courseacross the Mojave Desert in California without receiving a single human command.

The winning team, which entered a modified VW Touareg, receives $2 million (£1.1 million) from the Pentagon. It sponsored the race to spur the development of vehicles that can operate in war zones without putting soldiers in harm’s way.

Officials said the US military’s first unmanned vehicles could be deployed within five years.

The robotic competitors, which included a version of the US military Hummer, managed to drive themselves over dry lakebeds and thick brush, as well as crossing treacherous mountain passes.

The Mojave desert was chosen as the racecourse because of its similarity to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The robots, which were not allowed to be driven by remote control, also had to “see” and avoid man-made obstacles. Some had giant laser sensors, like eyeballs, mounted on their roofs.

Volkswagen, whose American advertising slogan is Drivers Wanted, emblazoned the back of its vehicle with a new motto: Drivers Not Required.

Although the race was organised by the Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) civilians will also be affected by the new technology.

Following the advent of cruise control, automatic headlamps and parking sensors, the next stage of motoring technology is likely to be a car-based form of autopilot.

Some modern Japanese cars are already fitted with “adaptive cruise control”, which alters motorway cruising speed according to the velocity of the vehicle in front.

The advances in a single year are remarkable. In the inaugural “Grand Challenge” last year not one robotic car finished the course. A vehicle called Sandstorm, built by Carnegie Mellon University, crawled the farthest: just over seven miles.

The competition this year began at 6.40am on Saturday, in the car park of Buffalo Bill’s, a brightly lit casino on the border of California and Nevada. Five thousand spectators turned up to watch, with news helicopters hovering overhead.

Each “bot” was given ten hours to complete the 132-mile course, with staggered starting times to avoid collisions.

Two hours before the event the 23 teams were given a CD-Rom with GPS co-ordinates of the course. After the vehicles were told where to go, all human input ended.

“The only thing we can tell the car is ‘Go’,” said Michael Montemerlo, 30, co-leader of the Stanford University team, which raced the customised blue VW Touareg nicknamed Stanley.

Fitted with laser guidance, radar and a video camera that helped it to “see” far away objects, Stanley completed the course in less than eight hours.

“The idea is that the car can see the good terrain and bad terrain, and stay on the good terrain,” Mr Montemerlo said. “It sounds easy, but it’s hard to do it reliably and fast.”

Sebastian Thrun, another Stanford team member, said “This Car, to me, is really a piece of history.”

The vehicles had to sound an alarm while driving and be followed by an escort from Darpa. The defence agency was given two controls for the robots: “pause” and “kill”. The latter switched off the engine. Founded in 1958 in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, Darpa is responsible for many technologies that have changed modern life, including Arpanet, which became the internet, as well asGPS.

Anthony Tether, director of Darpa, said that the race would help the US military meet its Congress-imposed target of making a third of all its vehicles unmanned by 2015.

The biggest excitement of the race came after the first 102 miles, when Stanley overtook an automated Humvee, named Highlander, built by Carnegie Mellon University students.

Asked whether Stanley could be put on a motorway and told to drive himself home, Mr Montemerlo winced. “Stanley cannot yet deal with other moving objects,” he said.


Name “Stanley”

Model A modified blue VW Touareg turbo diesel, with strengthened front bumper and skid plates to protect its underside while off road

How does it work? The vehicle “sees” with a laser, video camera and radar and analyses the safety of possible routes by using seven computers, stored in the boot

Cost Unknown, but easily in the millions

Creators A team of 60 academics and students from Stanford University, California

When will it be available? Military officials say that the first unmanned vehicles could be deployed by 2010

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