[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]
[infowar.de] NYT 09.10.03: Road Trip For Robots
New York Times
October 9, 2003
Road Trip For Robots
By Ashlee Vance
ST. LOUIS--TWO sturdy men edged through the Saturday crowd at a diner here,
sat down and began planning what they hope will someday be the vehicle of
choice for the United States Army. The partners, Warren Williams and Bill
Zimmerly, call themselves Team Phantasm. By day, Mr. Williams works
calibrating electrical instruments; on evenings, weekends and holidays, he
creates robots for the BattleBots competitions, in which machines fight
each other to destruction.
Mr. Zimmerly is a semiretired programmer and network administrator who
likes to write software; he has a particular passion for the Forth
programming code. Mr. Williams, talkative and energetic, is in many ways
the opposite of his reserved technophile friend, but the two men share a
common goal. They are trying to create a robotic vehicle for the Pentagon
that can drive itself for hundreds of miles across rugged terrain.
While no large military contractor has met the challenge and some people
may say the task is impossible, the Defense Department has placed a $1
million bet that Team Phantasm, or one of the dozens of other teams like
it, has the creativity and imagination to pull off the feat.
To that end, teams from universities and small companies, as well as
hobbyists, will compete next March in the Grand Challenge, a contest
sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, an
arm of the Defense Department. Participants will race vehicles they have
designed through the Mojave Desert to Las Vegas in a quest for the
The winning vehicle if there is one will be the first to cross the
finish line after traversing roughly 200 miles of desert in less than 10
hours without a driver or remote control.
Theoretically, a robot cavalry has the potential to save soldiers' lives by
fighting battles, performing reconnaissance and rescuing wounded troops.
But the technology that would enable a machine to guide itself at a decent
speed across obstacle-laden terrain has yet to emerge. Over the years,
Darpa has handed out millions of dollars to military contractors for new
designs for robotic land vehicles, but it has received only a modest return
on its investment.
Nonetheless, a Congressional mandate calls for one-third of ground combat
vehicles to operate unassisted by 2015. Darpa sees the Grand Challenge
contest as the quickest way to get new robots going.
"We are asking these teams to take a quantum leap toward the next
generation of technology that will be needed in 2015," said Col. Jose
Negron, the project manager for the race. "There are solutions out there in
the community and nation that people weren't offering because they don't
deal with the military complex. So we are inviting little mom-and-pop folks
out there to help spur advancement and take us where we need to be."
Team Phantasm may be the smallest of the 74 teams taking part in the
contest, but its members are optimistic. "The biggest ace in the hole that
we have is the fact that we are two stubborn, independent, unreasonable
people," Mr. Zimmerly said. "We won't follow what the textbooks teach, and
we don't have any boss telling us what to do."
All of the teams face the same hurdles: x their vehicles must see, steer,
accelerate, brake and navigate without outside assistance. The machines
will receive external guidance only from a series of Global Positioning
System coordinates that will be revealed by Darpa two hours before the race
on March 13. Each team must enter the data into computers on its vehicle,
then turn the vehicle over to Darpa.
The vehicles will start about 20 yards apart, each governed by an emergency
on-off system. They will have to guide themselves from one G.P.S. point to
the next, passing over or around ditches, water, rocks, barbed wire and
other vehicles. The only information about the course that Darpa has
provided is that obstructions on the route can be overcome or dodged by a
commercial 4-by-4 truck.
Many of the contestants agree that the race poses two main problems. First,
robots are not well suited to recognizing "negative terrain" like a ditch
or cliff. To avoid a robotic demise at the bottom of a canyon, many teams
are loading detailed maps often relying on satellite imagery of the
area between Los Angeles and Las Vegas into the onboard computers. They are
also equipping the machines with radar, laser radar and a host of other
sensors. Ideally, the detection tools would be able to distinguish an
insurmountable boulder from an insignificant bush, and a shallow ditch from
The second main area of concern is rooted in the restrictions imposed by
Darpa, which has posted its rules at www.darpa%.mil/grandchallenge. At
certain points, the robots will be required to pass through 10-foot
corridors at a specific speed. The machines must average 20 miles an hour
over all, while avoiding houses and other buildings.
"Getting within the 10-foot corridors will be the toughest part," Mr.
Williams said. "You can only plan so much, and then it gets down to chaos
theory. We're going to map the course down to one square meter, have every
conceivable route checked, and then everything just has to go right."
The two teammates hope that the imagination demanded by their low-budget
approach will help them overcome some of the obstacles. Using gear donated
by Kawasaki Motors, they decided to build a custom all-terrain vehicle
outfitted with a dome made of bulletproof material that can open up like
flower petals if the robot rolls over. The machine can then right itself
and take off again. The teammates have designed an efficient battery to
power the robot.
Their $50,000 approach is in stark contrast to the one taken by the
Carnegie Mellon University team, considered one of the favorites to win.
The Carnegie Mellon crew, known as the Red Team, has millions of dollars
and a long list of corporate sponsors at its disposal. More than 30 faculty
members and students have joined in outfitting a Hummer with the latest
autonomous technology. The $1 million prize matters little to the Red Team;
the school's reputation as a robotics powerhouse is on the line.
William Whittaker, the a professor at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute,
is a pioneer in building unmanned robots. His past work, some of it for
Darpa, has included building robots to investigate hazardous waste sites
like the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor. He is currently building
systems for planetary exploration.
Some of the smaller teams argue that Carnegie Mellon's experience and
financing run contrary to the innovative spirit of the Grand Challenge. But
Carnegie Mellon has laid out one of the clearest plans for completing the
race, while discussing strategies other teams have yet to fathom.
"You have to be able to assess your situation in the race and make
strategic determinations," said Mr. Whittaker, whose nickname, Red,
inspired the team's name. "If you are not in first place, then you have to
decide when it's best to trail other vehicles and when you are going to
make your move."
Carnegie Mellon has run several trials and is using an array of on-board
supercomputer-class computers to make tactical calculations.
Approaching the challenge on a smaller scale is the team from the
California Institute of Technology, which has a budget of $400,000 and a
1996 Chevrolet Tahoe ready for the race. Team Caltech has enlisted
volunteer help and financing from Northrop Grumman, which has won defense
contracts in the past for its robotics work.
"The undergraduates at Caltech are fearless in being willing to try new
things, which in an area like this is a plus," said Alex Fax, who is part
of the technical staff of Northrop Grumman's navigation systems division.
"We have to design things that can be manufactured and ultimately
profitable. The Grand Challenge vehicles are designed to win a race, so
there is a different motivation."
Darpa, noted for being an incubator for new technologies, including the
Internet, is counting on the competition format to tap into that
motivation. By dangling the $1 million prize (and the potential for
bragging rights), the government has managed to extract a vast investment
from mechanics, engineers and scientists.
"Darpa has been funding contractors for a while, and they want to speed
things up," said David van Gogh, the project manager for Team Caltech.
"This contest lets people take risks, and plays on human nature."
Despite the zeal of the competitors, the consensus seems to be that no one
will win the race this year. "I don't want to get your hopes up too high,"
Anthony Levandowski, a graduate student at the University of California at
Berkeley and leader of the Robotic Infantry team, told his group. "There is
a very large probability that we will not go too far."
Each team must submit a technical paper this month that will determine
whether it is eligible. So far only a handful of teams have passed this
test, but others are busy revising their proposals to meet Darpa's safety
and feasible-use requirements.
The teams, from as far away as Alaska (Team Arctic Tortoise), generally
wish they had more time and more money. Some participants hope to start a
business as a result of their work, while others hope that a victory will
establish their credibility as robotics experts. Darpa plans to hold the
competition roughly every 18 months until someone wins, the funds dry up or
everyone gives up. The agency retains right of first access to the
technology developed by the teams, but the groups are to retain ownership
of their intellectual property.
Win or lose, the teams describe the event as worthwhile and tremendous fun.
"Six months from now we will all be celebrating in Las Vegas," Mr.
Whittaker said. "I don't know whether there will be a winner, but there
aren't going to be any losers."
Mail an infowar -
- infopeace -
de mit "unsubscribe" im Text.