Carnegie Mellon Press Release: October 23, 2003
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Press Release

Michael B. Laffin
Eric C. Sloss

For immediate release:
October 23, 2003

Carnegie Mellon Universityıs Red Team Accepted To Compete in $1 Million Desert Race for Robots

PITTSBURGH—Carnegie Mellon University's Red Team, directed by Fredkin Research Professor William L. "Red" Whittaker, collaborating with his students, colleagues and a host of corporate sponsors, has been accepted to compete in the DARPA Grand Challenge, an unmanned, off-road race for robots that will take place March 13, 2004.

The robots must travel 250 tortuous miles from Barstow, Calif., through the Mojave Desert to Las Vegas, Nevada, on their own. Competitors will learn the exact route only two hours before the race begins. Once it starts, no human intervention is allowed. The robots must sense, plan and make the strategic decisions necessary to drive the course and beat the competition. They'll have 10 hours to reach their goal. The team whose robot finishes first in the allotted time will receive a $1 million cash prize. If there is no winner, the race will be run again in future years.

According to Whittaker, "The Red Team is racing to catalyze technology, build new relationships, change the view of what's possible and create new robotic applications in the world."

Experts say it will take huge leaps of technology to win the Challenge. Sensing must improve immensely in terms of range, speed and accuracy. The distance of autonomous driving must be stretched from miles to hundreds of miles and duration must be reduced from days to hours. This will require unprecedented advances in hardware and software for mobile robots. Many say it can't be done. But as one Red Team member said, "The race may not be winnable today, but it will be in five months."

To that end, some 25 students in Whittaker's Mobile Robot Development class have joined with volunteers and experts from sponsors Intel Corp., The Boeing Co., Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) and a dozen other organizations. The students bring expertise in engineering, computing, art and robotics. Sponsors, including Caterpillar, Inc., Applanix Corp., TeraSim, Inc., Mechron Power Systems, Omnistar, Lord Corp., HD Systems, Seagate Technology, the Robotics Foundry and CM-Labs, are contributing technologies, components, software and assistance, while organizations like Rod Millen MotorSports, Rod Hall Team Hummer and Chip Ganassi Racing are counseling on the art and science of off-road racing. All are scrambling to pull together the mechanics, electronics and software that will give their diesel-powered HMMWV 998 the guts and smarts to win the Challenge.

The Red Team is underpinning new invention with technologies developed by its members over decades. One example is a planning algorithm developed at Carnegie Mellon that has been used successfully in more than a dozen outdoor robots. The algorithm will guide the robot around large terrain features and stitch together routes connecting the waypoints that will describe the route to the contestants on race day.

Other critical elements are premapping and preplanning strategies. Red Team technology leader Chris Urmson describes them as "enabling capabilities for competing in the race. We'll be using 1.5 terabytes of data to generate high-resolution maps of the desert," he said. "Our planning software will process the maps to classify the terrain, reach the waypoints, avoid difficulties, determine our speeds and optimize our route."

The team is adding actuators for steering, throttle and brakes so that the navigation computer can physically operate the vehicle. Chassis suspension is being modified to soften the ride, since computer driving will be rough because it will encounter hazards a human might avoid. Because some of the cutting-edge components are fragile, the team is further cushioning the ride above the chassis to protect them,

"We need to have excellent sensing capability," Urmson continued, "more than has ever been accomplished before for computer modeling of the complex terrain expected in the race." The team is building a stabilization device to ensure that important sensors remain steady and pointed in the right direction.

Early in October, Red Team members traveled into the Mojave to field-test some of the technologies they've been developing. Starting in January 2004, 10 team members will work from the desert for the two-and-a-half months leading up to the race, testing systems and improving their reliability.

"We're doing something that's never been done before," said Whittaker. "We have an absolute time line and a clear criterion for success. Our team has the creativity, collaboration and commitment to draw the impossible into the realm of accomplishment."

For more information on sponsors, see:

For more information about the Red Team, see:

For more information about the DARPA Challenge, see:

Red Team Members

Applanix Corporation: (
Applanix contributes a POS LV, Position and Orientation System for Land Vehicles.
This system provides a continuous integrated inertial navigation solution consisting of vehicle position and orientation data, for a full 6 degree of freedom solution.

The Boeing Company: (
Boeing contributes engineering talent, system analysis and components.

Carnegie Mellon University: (
Carnegie Mellon contributes more than a decade of expertise in developing autonomous mobile robots that operate in natural and hazardous environments.

Caterpillar, Inc.: (
Caterpillar contributes testing facilities and support of mobile robotics course.

Chip Ganassi Racing: (
Chip Ganassi Racing contributes vehicle design, simulation and performance analysis.

CM Labs: (
CM Labs contributes the physics engine that incorporates real-time dynamic vehicle modeling that is embedded within the onboard planner.

HD Systems, Inc.: (
HD Systems, Inc. contributes lightweight harmonic drive actuation with the responsiveness and low backlash essential to stabilizing and pointing sensors.

Intel Corporation: (
Intel contributes computing and expertise in high performance processing.

The Lord Corporation: (
The Lord Corporation contributes motion control and isolation for payload protection.

Mechron Power Systems: (
Mechron Power Systems contributes auxiliary electrical generation that powers onboard computing, sending, electronics and controls.

Robotics Foundry: (
The Robotic Foundry contributes relationship-building services that forge the Red Team alliance.

Rod Millen Motorsport: (
Rod Millen Motorsport contributes off-road racing experience, vehicle design, simulation and race strategy planning expertise.

SAIC (Science Applications International Corporation): (
SAIC contributes high-speed stereovision cameras, electronics, simulation and mapping, software and modeling.

Seagate Technology: (
Seagate contributes robust, high-speed memory.

Team Rod Hall Hummer: (
Team Rod Hall Hummer contributes custom suspension.

TerraSim, Inc.: (
TerraSim contributes geospatial intelligence for race planning and visualization.


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