DARPA quells robot road rage

Grand Challenge back on track

After a series of last minute rule changes and a solid outpouring of anger, the final list of competitors for DARPA's Grand Challenge robot race has been set with 25 teams preparing to try and win a $1 million prize.

True to the original goals of the race, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has selected a wide variety of teams, ranging from well-funded robot experts at institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University (Red Team) to hobbyists cobbling together kit in their garage such as Team Phantasm based out of St. Louis. The breadth of the field looking to race their robot cars across the Mojave Desert in March points to DARPA's desire to generate new ideas in the field of autonomous vehicles. It did, however, take considerable effort for some of the smaller teams to find their way into the race and keep the big boys from dominating the contest.

"We have clearly sparked the enthusiasm and innovation that makes America great," said Col. Jose Negron, program manager for the DARPA Grand Challenge. "The teams comprise students, engineers and inventors, with many working in their home garages. These talented participants will bring fresh thinking to autonomous ground vehicle technology for national defense. I am confident that our warfighters will benefit in the coming years from the technologies that these teams will be fielding in the Grand Challenge."

The pleasantries used by DARPA in its announcement of the final competitor list ignore two months of aggravation felt by many of the 86 teams that applied. Early on, DARPA set an October deadline for teams to submit a technical paper that would judge whether or not they could participate in the robot vehicle race. Then, after an unexpectedly large number of papers rolled in, DARPA abruptly changed the rules, deciding to award 19 early applicants with an automatic spot in the race and saying the rest of the plebs could duke it out for just six openings.

This decision swung the race in favor of teams that had resources to work with early on. Many small groups were dependent on being approved for the race based on the merits of their technical paper before sponsors would commit funds or equipment. DARPA's rule change prompted them to cry foul and protest the picking process. DARPA, however, refused to change its mind.

That said, the six at-large spots largely went to small teams who were able to impress the DARPA brass during onsite visits. This helped restore some of the luster to the Grand Challenge - a contest meant to let the little guy out invent large military contractors.

The 25 teams will now meet on March 8 just outside of Barstow, California to show off their robot gear. The competitors will be required to prove their vehicles can see, steer and drive on their own. In addition, the robots will need to show they can negotiate the 200 mile desert course without destroying other vehicles in the process. Those that pass muster will be allowed to take part in the race that will award the first vehicle to reach Las Vegas in under 10 hours with a cool $1 million prize.

A second robot race is also in the process of being set up by the International Robot Racing Federation. In September, racers plan to prove their machine's mettle on a 300 mile off-road course.

"They will have to navigate, think, react and avoid moving obstacles racing towards them. The first team to finish receives a 1 million dollar prize," the organization says on its Web site.

This contest is also planned to take place near Las Vegas, and the organizers are talking about taking bets on the affair.

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