Carnegie Mellon's Red Team Seeks Two Million Dollar Robot Racing Prize

Byron SpiceTuesday, February 8, 2005

PITTSBURGH-Carnegie Mellon University's Red Team ( has entered two driverless HUMMERS in the DARPA Grand Challenge, a 175-mile, winner-take-all desert race for robots, scheduled to take place Oct. 8, 2005. The first machine to reach the finish line within 10 hours wins a prize of $2 million. There is no second place.

To compete, the two HUMMERS, named Sandstorm and H1ghlander, must first demonstrate their capability for success in the race by succeeding in the preliminaries. Red Team leader, Carnegie Mellon Robotics Professor William L. "Red" Whittaker, says that with each success, the team advances to the next level, "but failure at any level eliminates a team."

A key component of this contest is a five-minute competitive video prepared by each team to showcase their racing skills. Judges will use these videos to determine which applicants (and there are well over 100 at this time) earn site visits from DARPA in May 2005.The results of those visits will determine the teams that will advance to the Grand Challenge qualifiers.

Only 40 teams will advance to the September qualifiers, which include time trials. On race day, the final 20 competitors will leave the starting gates, but only one machine can win the $2 million.

The Red Team is an alliance of 50 students, volunteers, visitors and staff, which forms the heart of a much larger, extended community. "We are a diverse mix of people and skills, united in the common purpose to succeed in the Grand Challenge," Whittaker says.

"This race is like Lindbergh's flight. He had to go all the way to Paris for the check. He didn't triumph by giving it a good try, by crashing in the ocean or by arriving in second place. Last year the Red Team outran the pack for speed and distance, but its 7.4-mile record fell far short of the Grand Challenge goal."

Sandstorm is the Red Team's veteran robot racer. H1ghlander is the hot new contender. "Our ambition," says Whittaker, "is to put both machines on the starting line and one in the winner's circle." Since each entry requires a distinct team name and team leader, the Red Team has coined two identities: Red Team, Red Team Too. Together, Whittaker and robotics graduate student Kevin Peterson lead Red Team and Red Team Too, respectively. The duo is supported by sponsors that share a commitment to develop technology, impact the world and build the leaders of tomorrow.

Returning sponsors of the first Grand Challenge include Caterpillar, SAIC, Intel, Boeing, Harris, Chip Ganassi Racing, HD Systems, Applanix, Google, M7 Visual Intelligence, Mechron, Crouzet, Seagate and CM Labs. New sponsors include AM General, TTTech, TTControls, Snap-on, SICK, Riegl, KVH and Duke University, among others. Sponsors contribute components, technology, people and funding.

Hot new Red Team technologies include telescopic stereo to sense distant terrain, software to point sensors along an intended route, sensor fusion to combine various sensor data into a common model, race logic to game the competition and automated swerving to maneuver at high speed.

Success in the Challenge calls for much more than innovative technology and autonomous driving. The teams' ongoing goals include developing abilities to deal with all desert driving contingencies and the reliability to go the distance at race pace. "We test persistently, rigorously and realistically," Whittaker says. "We are developing and honing Sandstorm's race skills in the Nevada desert. The vehicle has logged 1,000 autonomous test miles with much more development and testing yet to come."

H1ghlander is more a work in progress-blindly following GPS waypoints without a driver, but not yet navigating autonomously as a thinking machine. In one early test, H1ghlander followed waypoints for 65 miles on a closed course. Every day, Red Team Too adds sensors, electronics and controls to H1ghlander. The teams plan to graft Sandstorm's superb route planning and navigation technologies into H1ghlander as well.

"Until the Grand Challenge prize is claimed, no one really knows what it will take to succeed. To win last year, it would have been enough to finish. Many teams might finish in 2005; therefore winning the 2005 Grand Challenge will take much more than driving the distance," Whittaker says.

View the competitive videos for H1ghlander and Sandstorm: Follow the Grand Challenge: contact: Michele Gittleman Phone: 412-268-6556Email:

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Byron Spice | 412-268-9068 |