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09/26/2005 07:00:00

Alice Gets Ready to Roll

PASADENA, Calif.-The intrepid Alice will soon take center stage at the California Speedway in Fontana. Alice is no diva, but the California Institute of Technology's entrant in this year's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Grand Challenge race, a take-no-prisoners field test of autonomously driven robotic vehicles organized by DARPA to speed the development of battlefield-ready robotic tanks, trucks, and other all-terrain vehicles.

Before reaching the race, Alice--a Ford E-350 van modified for off-roading and packed with tons of sophisticated computer servers and sensors--and a field of 42 other entrants will be put through their paces at the National Qualification Event (NQE) which will run from September 28 to October 6 in Fontana. Because of the large number of entrants and the difficulty of the test, the exact time of Alice's qualification run won't be determined until after the start of the NQE.

During the NQE, each vehicle will navigate itself--with no human intervention--through a course of sharp turns, rough roads, power poles, foliage, and other obstacles. The top 20 teams will move on to compete on October 8 in the Grand Challenge finals, a wild ride through the Mojave Desert, over unpaved roads, down trails, and around ditches and sand dunes. The first vehicle to complete the almost 175-mile trek, which will start and end just outside Primm, Nevada, at the California-Nevada state line (the exact course won't be revealed until two hours before start time), in less than 10 hours will receive a $2 million prize.

"I think we'll do great at the NQE," says Richard Murray, professor of control and dynamical systems and leader of Team Caltech. Team Caltech consists of over 50 undergraduates from Caltech, Princeton, Virginia Tech, and Lund University in Sweden, plus high school volunteers, Caltech faculty participants, and engineers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Sportsmobile, Northrop Grumman, and Systems Technology Incorporated. Over the past year, the student team members have combined to put in over 45,000 hours developing Alice.

"The race is going to be tough, although we were farther along with Alice at the beginning of the summer than we were with Bob for the final challenge last year. A lot will depend on how our work over the next two weeks goes," Murray adds, when Alice will continue to be put through her paces in desert test runs and through courses in the parking lots of the Rose Bowl, Santa Anita race track, and the former St. Luke Medical Center. "We are optimizing and tuning our software, trying to get it to respond intelligently to the many types of conditions it might see during the race."

In last year's Grand Challenge, Team Caltech's Bob, a '96 Chevy Tahoe, didn't respond so intelligently to a swath of barbed wire. Bob plowed headlong into it and got hung up, ending his race at mile 1.3. This year, drawing on lessons from Bob's mistakes (Alice's license plate, in fact, reads "I 8 BOB"), the members of Team Caltech have perfected their sensors and software, and their game plan.

"We want Alice to 'see' what is going on around it and drive based on that knowledge," Murray says. "This is much harder than making use of maps and satellite data to locate the roads ahead of time. With five cameras and five laser ranging devices (LADARs), we have a lot more sensors and computers than many of the other teams. This should give us an advantage if the course turns out to be something that is not just running along dirt roads and trails."

Team Caltech has already decided what it will do with the cash prize if Alice wins: $1 million will endow a fund to support CS/EE/ME 75, the class in multidisciplinary project design taken by Team Caltech's students; $500,000 will be divided equally among four student engineering chapters, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the Association for Computing Machinery, the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the Society of Women Engineers. The other $500,000 will be divvied up among Team Caltech's student members.

The public is invited to attend the NQE, which will kick off with a 9:00 a.m. opening ceremony on September 28, and the Grand Challenge finals. Admission for both is free, with grandstand seating available. Spectator information is available at the DARPA Grand Challenge website: For the latest information on Team Caltech's NQE start time, visit Team Caltech's website:


Contact: Kathy Svitil (626) 395-8022

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Written by Kathy Svitil