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  • Mad Max Race- robot drivers.

    Posted on Sunday, August 31 @ 11:11:09 PST
    Robots rule in this futuristic road race


    By Jennifer Bowles

    In a "Mad Max" race across the California desert next spring, road warriors will charge over the rugged terrain to Las Vegas, where $1 million awaits the winner.

    Only there won't be any Max, or any other driver. Just robots.

    The military, in a push to get unmanned vehicles on the battlefield, launched the Barstow, Calif.-to-Las Vegas competition to lure the average Joe mechanic and inventor.


    Caltech team member Haomiao Huang, 20, works on the GPS navigational system on the unmanned vehicle after the first test at El Mirage Dry Lake near Adelanto, Calif.
    Photo by Terry Pierson - The Press-Enterprise


    "There are military scientists working on various aspects of autonomous vehicles, but we're not working fast enough. We want to see what's out there," said Air Force Col. Jose Negron, leading the project for the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, an arm of the U.S. Department of Defense known as DARPA.

    Competitors won't know the route until two hours before race time. At that point, they'll have to program the chosen path into computers, push a button and let their machines do the rest. The only commands the teams can give: start and stop. Machines that don't finish the 200 to 250 miles within 10 hours are disqualified.

    "The person that achieves this," Negron said, "it will be like Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic. It's never been done before."

    Besides the prize, the winner could end up getting a contract to do further research or production, he said.

    Such technology, Negron said, would have come in handy searching the long, narrow caves of Afghanistan and on the roads of Iraq, where soldiers have been ambushed.

    The agency's Grand Challenge will run March 13, a day after the robotic vehicles undergo qualification and safety inspections at California Speedway in Fontana to make sure, among other things, they can stop.

    So far, 49 entries from universities, seasoned engineers and mom-and-pop outfits across the nation have signed up, adopting such names as the Patriots, Viva Las Vegas, Team Rambo and Team Arctic Tortoise, a group from Alaska.


    El Mirage Dry Lake near Adelanto, Calif., is the spot for members of a team from Caltech to test their unmanned vehicle in preparation for the "Mad Max" race across the desert. Driver Jeff Lamb is in the driver's seat, maneuvering the vehicle with a joystick, as other members of the team run other tests.
    Photo by Terry Pierson - The Press-Enterprise



    If no one wins in March, the agency can hold the competition until 2007, when the $1 million prize allocated by Congress expires.

    On El Mirage Dry Lake in northeastern San Bernardino County, Calif., winds whipped up sand and hot sun beat down between storm clouds late last week as the a team from Caltech put "Bob" to the test for the first time.

    The SUV, virtually stripped of its insides, is loaded down with computers, wiring, sensors, computers, a generator, a joystick for steering and four foam-filled, flat-proof tires.

    With student Jeff Lamb in the driver's seat to oversee tests, Bob crawled up to 15 mph.

    "I've always liked robotics and fiddling with things," said Haomiao Huang, 20, an electrical engineering student in charge of Bob's navigating sensors, as he watched. "This is the ultimate cool thing."

    At the end of October, the defense research agency will drop any teams whose technical papers don't show a promising vehicle.

    "It's quite a bit of tunnel vision right now," said Scott Fleming, 20, one of the team's student leaders.

    Lamb, the Mr. Fix-it of the group, got a taste for mechanical pursuits at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris. His dad was among the volunteers who helped refurbish the 1922 steam locomotive known as Ventura County Railway No. 2. The young Jeff tagged along from the Los Angeles area every other weekend.

    "It takes 10 to 12 hours of work for every mile that train runs," Lamb said. "It's 80-year-old stuff. You can't just buy the parts at a hardware store."

    Lamb and other team members put Bob through four test runs at El Mirage, discovering problems with the steering, transmission and navigational capabilities.

    Dave Van Gogh, Caltech project manager for the robotic vehicle, said the trial run was a lesson.

    "I think they realized that it's not enough to just have each individual piece work," he said, "but that they need to test and integrate all the parts."

    The California desert has long been a proving ground for the nation's military might. It began when Gen. George S. Patton trained his troops from headquarters in Chiriaco Summit in eastern Riverside County, Calif., during World War II. Today, the Army, Navy and Marines all have bases and training centers there.

    The Grand Challenge route will have varied terrain.

    California's Mojave Desert rises from near sea level to more than 8,000 feet. The robotic vehicles will have to maneuver over unpaved roads, negotiate rocky surfaces and find their way through washes, canyons and dry lakes.

    "They'll be restricted to routes of travel under very tight conditions," said Nathan Skallman, an outdoor recreation planner for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which is working on issuing a permit for the event.

    Copyright The Press Enterprise
    Kirk
    1997 Jeep Wrangler
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