Next February, a bunch of yet-to-be-designed robots are going to take on a rugged challenge: a 1-day, 480-kilometer race through the desert, rolling (or treading) from Los Angeles to Las Vegas with no human direction.
Sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the race is intended to spur the development of smart desert-warfare vehicles. The race is set up so vehicles will have one pit stop where they can be refueled and repaired by robot. They will be wired so DARPA can stop a vehicle in an emergency--for instance, to prevent running through a tent full of backpackers. Otherwise they will be allowed no outside guidance except use of the Global Positioning System. DARPA will furnish the details of the course 2 hours before the start--enough time for computers to generate maps and plans but not enough to practice the route. The agency is offering $1 million dollars to the winning team--provided their bot reaches Vegas in less than 10 hours.
The first to jump in when the contest opened this month was robot designer Red Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "I'm there to win," says Whittaker, who has designed numerous robots, from one that helped cleanup at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant to one that will look for life on Mars. He has put together a team that will design a robot named Sandstorm, which he estimates will cost about $5 million.
Meeting the DARPA challenge will represent a "grand leap" toward making a robot that is truly an autonomous decision-making creature, says Whittaker. "The state of the art is about 2% of what is needed to win the race." Present-day robots can only do off-road navigation at a few kilometers an hour at best, he says. The robots in the DARPA race will have to average at least 40 kilometers per hour, navigating hill climbs, boulders, water hazards and dry lakebeds. But one of the biggest hurdles, says Whittaker, will be dust obscuring the robot's vision.