Saturday, November 3, 2007

"Perhaps the strangest auto race ever."

Since no one is going to be able to see the Badger game today, fire up the computer and check out the DARPA Urban Challenge, which will be running all day:

The cars will all have to obey a 30-mile-per-hour speed limit, will have to stop at intersections, signal their turns, and obey all California traffic laws. And absolutely no one will be driving--not by remote control, and certainly not in the driver's seats.

Along with the robots will be 50 brave souls wearing crash helmets and driving Ford Tauruses to provide circulating traffic for the robots, whose purpose is to test the technologies for fully autonomous vehicles. The Pentagon wants robots to drive convoys in Iraq. Auto companies want the tech to enable their products to keep themselves out of accidents. And the teams competing in the race have their eyes on the $2 million first prize, $1 million second place prize, and $500,000 third place prize.

The cars won't all start the race at the same time. They'll each be driving different missions, three total for each one, and they'll return to the starting line for each mission. The course covers 60 miles in all, and the winning cars will have to complete all of their missions within six hours.

The course features two big wheel-like "zones," where traffic snarls are sure to occur, an off-road section leading to a straightaway, where one team member tells me he expects to see some good "bot-on-bot action" with robots trying to pass each other, and a parking area, outlined in red on this map, where bots will have to maneuver around strategically placed junk-yard vehicles.

(emphasis added)

Oshkosh Truck's entry performed excellently during the qualifying rounds and might be able to win, place or show despite the fact that the competition appears to be much smaller and nimbler. The race just started a short while ago.

And how can you resist hot "bot-on-bot action"?

MORE: Truck's entry was one of three vehicles to be the first to leave the coarse. Apparently the TerraMax stalled for too long in front of a building and needed to be driven back to the parking lot. Prior to its departure, however, the TerraMax did seem to be performing quite well.

While disappointing, the race was by no means let down. Being the largest vehicle in the competition, the TerraMax was the crowd favorite which will certainly help in the PR department as Truck parlays its achievement at the event into more contracts with DOD and as a recruiting tool to lure young engineers from academia.

EVEN MORE: A provisional lessons-learned report:

Eyeing this potentially lucrative market, Oshkosh – one of the military’s major truck suppliers – fielded one of the most promising teams at Urban Challenge. Their entrant, TerraMax, is based on a Marine Corps utility truck, and at 12 tons and eight-feet-wide is twice as large as the next biggest competitor. But that was a conscious decision, says team leader Gary Schmiedel. He says Oshkosh, unlike the other teams, is aiming to turn their robot truck into a military product – and fast – so they need to stick to real-world dimensions. To ensure that such a huge robot could safely navigate Darpa’s 60-mile course with its turns, intersections and parking lots, Oshkosh developed a unique camera-based navigation system and did months of rigorous testing. During the qualification round last month, TerraMax performed “perfectly,” according to Darpa boss Tony Tether.

But just two hours into the final race, TerraMax had a minor crack-up in a parking lot. And just like that, the giant truck was out of the race. The forlorn bot joined two other early-disqualified trucks in a roped-off holding pen.

What happened? “We don’t know yet,” Oshkosh’s Chris Yates says. But team member John Beck says it’s probably a software issue. One Darpa official shrugged as he talked to the disappointed team. “When you’ve got a robot that big … ”

MORE STILL: Plenty of pictures here.

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