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Robot grunts tumble in race for $1m prize

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Robot grunts have struggled through two days of test runs in Fontana, California, as they prepare for DARPA's $1m Grand Challenge event.

Only Carnegie Mellon University's Sandstorm robotic vehicle has completed a test course that measures how well the machines are greased for a 200 mile race to be held Saturday. A number of other teams' vehicles have made partial runs over the 1.36 mile course, while other teams have decided to hold off on the qualification until their vehicles are fully tuned. The weekend race from Barstow, California to Las Vegas will be the culmination of months of work by 25 teams to try and seize a $1m prize put up by DARPA to spur the creation of a robot army.

"We had a very exciting day with the Red Team being the first group to complete the course," said Colonel Jose Negron, DARPA Grand Challenge Program Manager. "We streamlined some of our procedures and allowed the teams extra practice time on the track. The excitement is building as more teams move positively forward to Saturday's Challenge."

Carnegie Mellon's success does not come as much of a surprise, as many observers have pegged it as the favorite in the race. Like all of the 25 competitors, Carnegie Mellon must turn its vehicle over to DARPA on Saturday, hit the go switch and hope the robot can steer itself through the Mojave Desert and on to Sin City. Most of the vehicles are packed with radar, laser radar, various sensors and mountains of compute power to process the robot's course as its moves from one GPS coordinate to another. DARPA - an arm of the Defense Department - will not provide the GPS "waypoints" making up the course to the teams until two hours before the race.

Carnegie Mellon's Red Team is racing a Hummer built on the back of more than $3 million in funding from a variety of sources, including Intel and Boeing. The team had a setback last week when Sandstorm tumbled over, destroying some sensor components. After a rush fix, however, it looks like the Red Team is ready to race.

Axion, The Golem, Rover Systems, SciAutonics I, SciAutonics II, Team ENSCO, Team Terrahawk and TerraMax partially completed the course.

El Reg is keeping a close eye on Team Phantasm out of St. Louis. The team is in need of new radar equipment before it goes at the test course. Team Phantasm consists of only two men and has tapped into less than $50,000 to prepare a robotic ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) donated by Kawasaki.

DARPA is keeping an optimistic tone about the weekend race and with good reason. The Grand Challenge was designed to make up for largely wasted multi-million dollar handouts to large military contractors who could not come up with vehicles capable of guiding themselves over long distances. Congress has mandated that one-third of military vehicles must operate unmanned by 2015. With that in mind, DARPA decided to dangle the $1 million prize in front of students, small companies and gear heads to see if they could come up with groundbreaking ideas in the field.

Over the past few months, DARPA has changed a number of the contest's rules to adjust to an overwhelming number of entrants. In addition, DARPA will now send vehicles off in a time-trial format instead of having them all take off from the start line at the same time.

The race will be broadcast over satellite on Saturday. The coordinates can be found here.

For more information on the basics of the race and controversy surrounding it, please look over the related stories. ®

Related stories

$1 million Grand Challenge map leaked on Web
DARPA quells robot road rage
DARPA chisels little guy out of $1 million race
DARPA's indecision threatens integrity of $1 million race

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