Racing Toward Robotics

May 2004
By Maryann Lawlor
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The Red Team’s vehicle traveled 7.4 miles, veered off course and was wedged on an obstacle.

After months of preparation, autonomous vehicles hit the road in the California desert to elevate the art of robotics and explore new capabilities for the military. Teams of robotics experts from across the United States brought their unmanned vehicles to Barstow, California, to compete in the U.S. Defense Department’s first $1 million Grand Challenge. Although no entry crossed the finish line, the real winner is likely to be the warfighter. Military experts will sift through thousands of lessons learned and move forward on bringing autonomous vehicles to the battlefield.

The event’s purpose was to engage inventors and engineers outside of the traditional defense contractor space in the pursuit of autonomous mobility (SIGNAL, August 2003, page 37). The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Arlington, Virginia, was in the driver’s seat, and the “destination” was to design an autonomous vehicle that could travel from the Los Angeles area to the Las Vegas area in less than 10 hours.

The overwhelming interest in the event surprised DARPA officials, who from the beginning did not anticipate that any team would be able to traverse the entire course. During the months leading up to the race, DARPA revised some of the rules for the event, including a decision to limit the field to 20 final competitors. This decision was later reversed.


SciAutonics II made it to the 6.7-mile mark before it hit an embankment and became stuck.

As the day of the race approached, discussions took place about the length, design and features of the course. Originally, the course length was estimated at 200 to 250 miles; however, the final course stretched 142 miles. Officials also considered a 20- to 30-mile straightaway at both the beginning and end of the course. On race day, however, the first three miles of the route included seven turns, and the road became narrow and steep at the fifth mile.

The final 25 vehicle-building teams varied widely in experience and resources, ranging from students at Palos Verdes High School in California to engineering experts from large corporations. An assortment of platforms was chosen as well, including a motorcycle, a dune buggy and a high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle.

Twenty teams arrived at the California Speedway in Fontana, California, to qualify for the Grand Challenge. During the week before the race, each team’s vehicle had to complete a 1.3-mile qualification, inspection and demonstration course. As a result of their performance, 15 teams were allowed to participate; however, immediately prior to the race, two of the teams withdrew from the competition.


Digital Auto Drive traveled 6 miles but could not regain the route after being paused by the manned control vehicle. 

Teams received information about the route and the obstacles just three hours before the start of the race. The data included the latitude and longitude of approximately 2,000 waypoints and the speed limits for various sections of the route, which featured utility roads, switch-backs, severe elevation changes, blind turns and sheer drops.

Vehicle start times were staggered by between five and 10 minutes. Each autonomous vehicle was accompanied by a manned control vehicle that monitored its progress and could pause the vehicle if it was preventing the progress of another vehicle or in danger of crashing.

Although no team drove away with the $1 million prize, DARPA and the participants still consider the first Grand Challenge a success. Don Verhoff, Team TerraMax member, believes the competition demonstrates that success in the autonomous ground vehicle field depends not only on improved sensors but also on faster processing speeds. Verhoff, who is the executive vice president of technology at Oshkosh Truck Corporation, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, explains that vehicles must be able to distinguish between a 3-foot-high rock and a 3-foot-high tumbleweed. They then must be able to “decide” quickly whether to circumnavigate the obstacle or simply roll over it.


The Golem Group’s vehicle cruised 5.2 miles before experiencing a throttle problem while ascending a hill.

Competitors were too busy to spend much time comparing notes, but Verhoff admits that his team members saw a number of technologies and techniques in other entries that they wish they had thought to include in their own. Verhoff believes that at the next Grand Challenge, competitors probably will share and consolidate ideas.

Verhoff also offers two suggestions for future events. First, he suggests that the competition rules include a payload requirement. Because the military is examining the autonomous vehicle capability to support logistics, the platform must be able to function as a hauler. Second, he recommends that the course be designed as a 150-mile circular track so that teams and equipment do not have to be packed up to travel to the finish line.

At the finish line party after the race, Dr. Anthony Tether, director, DARPA, revealed that another Grand Challenge is slated to take place in roughly a year. Grand Challenge coordinators have one message: Gentlemen and ladies, start your imaginations.


Although none completed the 142-mile route, eight vehicles made it past the starting gate.

  1. Red Team                     7.4 miles
  2. SciAutonics II                 6.7miles
  3. Digital Auto Drive              6 miles
  4. The Golem Group           5.2 miles
  5. Team CalTech                1.3 miles
  6. Team TerraMax              1.2 miles
  7. SciAutonics I                   .75 mile
  8. Team CIMAR                   .45 mile
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