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March 11, 2004




Carnegie Mellon University's Red Team robot "Sandstorm" is a converted Humvee that led all the robots by completing 7 miles of the 150-mile DARPA Grand Challenge.

Robotic vehicles will race across the desert from Los Angeles to Las Vegas this weekend for the DARPA Grand Challenge, a race sponsored by Pentagon's Defence Advance Research Projects Agency. The teams have just two hours from the start of the race to program a route for their vehicle and then the robots are on their own. So the teams were testing all week. KNPR's Ky Plaskon met with some of the teams vying for the one million dollars in prize money from the government.

PLASKON: In regular off rod races like this recent one in Las Vegas driving across desert terrain at 100 miles an hour requires tough vehicles, teamwork and drivers like Gus Viladosa.

VILADOSA: To be honest with you if we did have a fear of death when we are in the racecar you wouldn't get in it.

PLASKON: Replacing the driver with a robot would make a fast, virtually indestructible, selfless, mindless, servant. That's the goal of Cornel Jose Negron of DARPA, the D-O-D's research arm. He was at this race promoting the Grand Challenge to draw the expertise of off road enthusiasts to build the robots he was hoping for.

NEGRON: In one sense, you can call them robots but they are more than that because they are actually performing what I call holistic functions. They are going to be able to move very quickly.

PLASKON: Ideally research agencies would build these quick robots for the race and then could be used to help soldiers carry supplies and save lives by taking on dangerous situations. But as race day approached it was apparent expectations were high. Retired aerospace engineer Bob Williams who watched nearly two-dozen robots fail to qualify for the race this week at the California Speedway east of LA. Only one made it while he was there.

WILLIAMS: Fast is a relative term . . . It was going I would say faster than any other vehicle we have seen out here but probably averaging 5 to 10 miles an hour which isn't all that fast.

PLASKON: Most are modified SUVs, covered in red kill switches. The computers inside can be easily confused by static, colors and the off road jolting doesn't help either. They plot along a course meant to simulate the desert, navigating a sand pit and a gap between corrugated metal. By yesterday three had passed the field tests including a robotic motorcycle. It looks like just tires and wires. It bolts out of it's chute, crashes into a concrete barrier, turns around, crashes into a truck, a minute later reverses and snakes aimlessly away completely off course. Most are less dramatic, but still unpredictable. Melanie Duma of team Axia Racing sent her Jeep Cherokee robot out on its own for the first time here.

DUMA: Well the horn is when we start and stop, and also when we change gears, and what we did is we are right up against the barricade and lets see what happens here. It might take it a while.

PLASKON: Fascinated spectators follow along side the robots, protected by a chain link fence and concrete barriers. Sean Tedrow is among them.

TEDROW: Really they are just programs and you will see every time they think it seems like they are thinking like a human being.

PLASKON: The teams come from some of the nation's top Universities including Cal Tech, Carnegie Mellon and Berkley. If one of the 20-some teams here finishes the race to Las Vegas on Saturday they could win Department of Defense contracts to build robots. Tray Roski, CEO of Battle Bots and volunteer here, says contestants have other motives too.

ROSKI: This is really about showing off your brain and DARPA has really put up an incredible challenge here because of the million dollars, a million dollar prize. It is the largest prize in robot contests that I have ever heard of and probably will be for a very long time . . . ha ha ha.

PLASKON: He says this competition will change the world by making heroes of robot builders. The Pentagon is pleased because the challenge has sparked the imagination in people who would otherwise never be doing business with the department of defense.

See discussion rules.


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