Robotic vehicles fail to win $1 million prize

None of 15 entrants near finishing 142-mile course

March 14, 2004|By Daren Briscoe | Daren Briscoe,LOS ANGELES TIMES

The rise of the machines suffered something of a setback yesterday as a fleet of high-tech, unmanned vehicles demonstrated the ability to plow into fences, snarl themselves in barbed wire and even self-immolate, all unaided by human hands.

Played out in the unforgiving sands of the Mojave Desert, the ill-fated spectacle was a competition sponsored by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which specializes in cutting-edge, high-risk ventures with the potential for military application.

DARPA's "Grand Challenge" was to create an autonomous robotic vehicle that could traverse the desert after being left to its own devices, aided only by whatever hardware and technology it could carry.

To encourage innovation and spur participation, the agency offered a $1 million prize to whoever could design such a machine, build it and then step aside while the contraption found its way to Primm, Nev.

The contest began, and ended, in Barstow, Calif. Before the starting gun went off, the 15 vehicles took their positions, poised to aim for the finish line 142 miles away. But soon after, the gleaming gadgetry succumbed to fires, crashes and stalls. The converted Humvee didn't make it out of the city. Neither did the machine that looked like a golf cart on steroids. The fleet managed only a combined 29 miles of travel.

But despite the robots that got lost, never moved or drove in aimless circles before being shut down, organizers and participants cast the whole affair as a smashing success.

"I consider it an absolute success. Our goal was to spark interest in science and technology in this area, and there is no question about the success of that," DARPA director Anthony Tether said later.

DARPA's ultimate goal is to ensure that by 2015 one-third of the armed forces' ground combat vehicles are unmanned, fulfilling a congressional mandate.

DARPA officials said bringing together such an assemblage of technophiles, gearheads and military enthusiasts would lead to advances in technology that would bring them closer to that goal.

But Paul Contratto, who was hacking the brush outside his uncle's home next to the starting line, was less than enthusiastic about the whole affair.

Gripping a rake, with sweat drenching his blue tank top, Contratto, 33, said he found the unaccustomed crush of military vehicles in the area unnerving.

He didn't like the idea of computer chips replacing human drivers, even in war zones. "That stuff scares me," Contratto said. "The mind is what's supposed to take care of these things. God wants us to do it for ourselves."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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