Quark Soup: The Great Race

| March 11, 2004

Meet Bob: a 1996 Chevy Tahoe learning to drive. Bob is one of 25 robots undergoing preliminary testing for the DARPA Grand Challenge, a 200 mile robot race conceived by the Pentagon. Responding to a congressional mandate that by 2015 one-third of ground combat vehicles should operate autonomously, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has been dispersing million of dollars amongst military contractors and university departments to research driverless vehicles, but so far, no breakthroughs.

The DARPA Grand Challenge (DGC) is the latest appeal for bright ideas. Offering one million dollars and bragging rights, the race welcomes mom-and-pop types into the running, along with 'robotics researchers, industrial engineers, high school students, hot rodders, and battle-bot builders.' Supposedly, each of the 25 groups that has passed the qualifying trials has a fair shot at the prize, but a front runner has prematurely emerged: The Red Team, based out of Carnegie Mellon, boasts more expertise and better funding than any of its competitors. Their costly expenditures include $725,000 on the vehicle itself, a military Humvee loaded with hardware donated by companies like Space Imaging, a satellite company that has offered over $200,000 worth of techno-goodies.

The vehicles that make it through the Qualifying Inspection and Demonstration round will meet for the final race at the Slash X Caf? in Barstow, California on March 13 to cover 200 miles of mostly dirt roads between Barstow and Las Vegas. Information about the exact route will be withheld from participants until two hours before the race, at which time they will receive a CD with the GPS coordinates that mark the course. During the race, participants are to have no contact with their vehicles, and vehicles that stray beyond a 10 foot corridor will be immediately disqualified.
-- Andi McDaniel

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