03/04/2004 08:00:00

(Nearly) Autonomous Bob (Almost) Ready to Race

PASADENA, Calif. -- It's do-or-die time for Bob. Next week marks the final test for the Chevrolet truck with the human nickname, the California Institute of Technology's entry in the DARPA Grand Challenge autonomous ground vehicle race scheduled for March 13.

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is offering a $1 million prize to a team whose vehicle can complete an off-road course of more than 200 miles that will start somewhere near Barstow, CA, and end somewhere near Las Vegas (the exact course won't be revealed until race day).

The challenge, of course, is that the 25 vehicles invited to race by DARPA (culled from an original 106 entries) will race without a driver and must be fully autonomous--not a remote-controlled vehicle driven by a student wielding a laptop at a distance, but a completely autonomous car that will drive and navigate itself. The vehicles will have to contend with such pitfalls as dirt roads and ditches, open water, rocks and boulders, underpasses, cattle guards, sandpits, and their fellow competitors.

Before that race, though, Bob and the other vehicles must meet a challenge that is almost as great--a Qualification, Inspection, and Demonstration (QID) test to take place at the California Speedway in Fontana. On Monday, March 8, from 10:30 to 11 a.m., and again on Wednesday, March 10, from 9:30 to 10 a.m., Bob will have to successfully navigate a mile-and-a-half-long course that will contain all the dire elements mentioned above. "We think of it as the precursor to the actual race," says Dave van Gogh, the project manager for Team Caltech. (QID General Opening Ceremony is scheduled for Monday, March 8, at 9 a.m., and continues on Tuesday and Wednesday, at 8 a.m.)

For a year now, van Gogh has shepherded between 18 and 23 Caltech undergraduates who receive academic credit for their work. Although they are receiving advice from scientists at Caltech, the Jet Propulsion Lab, and Northrop Grumman, it is ultimately the students' responsibility for the computing hardware, software coding, and designing and building Bob's mechanical infrastructure.

All of the hardware has been installed, and in tests, the truck has been able to navigate from one point to another by itself. What hasn't been accomplished yet is the autonomous avoidance of obstacles, which is--obviously--critical for Bob's success. Currently, several of the students are feverishly writing additional code and rooting out programming errors in preparation for the Monday QID.

DARPA is sponsoring the challenge to encourage innovation in driverless technology, which the Department of Defense believes will be critical to future military endeavors. The idea for the race itself was suggested by former Caltech provost Steve Koonin, now on leave from the Institute. At the time he chaired the JASONs, an elite core of academic scientists that provides the federal government with advice on national security issues. DARPA had approached the group for advice on how best to advance research into autonomous vehicles.

The immediate goal of Team Caltech is to pass Monday's QID. The other primary goal, says van Gogh, has already been met--providing the students with a unique educational opportunity. "All of the students are really motivated and excited about this," he says. "That was our goal from the beginning--to create a unique learning experience for them."

The QID is free and open to the public. The California Speedway is located at 9300 Cherry Avenue in Fontana. More information on attending the QID and race can be found at http://www.darpa.mil/grandchallenge/spectators.htm.

Media Contact:Mark Wheeler (626) 395-8733 wheel@caltech.edu

Visit the Caltech Media Relations website at http://pr.caltech.edu/media

Written by Marcus Woo