Carnegie Mellon's Red Team Prepares To Qualify in $1 Million Desert Race for Robots

PITTSBURGH—Carnegie Mellon University's Red Team, directed by Fredkin Research Professor William L. "Red" Whittaker, collaborating with his students, colleagues and corporate sponsors, is preparing their robot vehicle Sandstorm to qualify in the DARPA Grand Challenge, an unmanned, off-road race for robots that will take place March 13, 2004.

The Qualification Inspection and Demonstration (QID) trials are scheduled to take place at the California Speedway in Fontana March 8-12, Sandstorm will be vying for a place among a maximum of 20 competitors that ultimately will take the field in this unique contest. All of the robots will have two chances to qualify for the race in an arduous, one-mile trip through obstacles on the speedway infield. Sandstorm's time slots are 4:30 p.m., Tuesday, March 9, and 3:30 p.m. March 11.

Sandstorm is a diesel-powered 998 HMMWV. The body has been transformed to accommodate computers, sensors, laser scanners and other equipment that will enable it to navigate a torturous 210 mile course from Barstow Calif. through the Mojave Desert to Primm, Nev., on its own in less than 10 hours

Team members will learn the exact route of the race only two hours before it begins. Once it starts, no human intervention is allowed. The robots must sense, plan and make the strategic decisions necessary to drive the course and beat the competition. The team whose robot finishes first in the allotted time will receive a $1 million cash prize. If there is no winner, the race will be run again in future years.

Students, volunteers and more than 30 corporate sponsors have been working for nearly a year to pull together the mechanics, electronics and software that will give Sandstorm the guts and smarts to win the Challenge. Among the Red Team's key sponsors are Intel Corp., The Boeing Co., and Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC). The students bring expertise in engineering, computing, art and robotics. Sponsors contribute technologies, components, software, counsel and cash,

According to Whittaker, "The Red Team is racing to catalyze technology, build new relationships, change the view of what's possible and create new robotic applications in the world."

Experts have said it will take huge leaps of technology to win the Challenge. Sensing must improve immensely in terms of range, speed and accuracy, requiring unprecedented advances in hardware and software for mobile robots. The Red team feels they've made at least some of those advances.

To prepare Sandstorm for autonomous driving, the team added actuators for steering, throttle and brakes so that the navigation computer can physically operate the vehicle. Computer driving is rough since it encounters hazards that a human might avoid, so Sandstorm's suspension has been modified to soften the ride. .

Sandstorm has repeatedly driven 25 miles an hour, but its computational performance, obstacle detection and avoidance, and mapping capabilities will determine its speed and ability to win. Much of Sandstorm's fortunes ride on its 64-bit Intel Itanium processors and dual-processor Xeon systems. The former is the robot's main computing engine, while the latter process sensor data, control the robot's actuators and monitor the status of its various systems.

Sandstorm's eyes on the world are a laser range finder for mapping terrain combined with a stereovision system for obstacle classification and for recognizing moving objects. These sensors ride on a three-degree of freedom "neck" designed by the team that keeps the robot's scanners on the road as it bounces through rough terrain. Sandstorm also scans the horizon with radar, which adds the ability to see throuogh dust. In addition, there is a differential global positioning system (GPS) to help Sandstorm stay on course. This is tied to a high-fidelity map that the team will create and download when DARPA releases the waypoints for the course at 4:30 a.m., March 13.

Other critical elements are pre-mapping and pre-planning strategies. Red Team route leader Mike Clark describes them as "enabling capabilities for competing in the race.

"We'll be using two terabytes of data to generate high-resolution maps of the desert," Clark said. "Our planning software will process the maps to classify the terrain, reach the waypoints, avoid difficulties, determine our speeds and optimize our route."

During January, the team tested and reworked Sandstorm at the site of an abandoned steel mill not far from the Carnegie Mellon campus. They've endured overnight tests in freezing temperatures and a great deal of snow and ice. Now the team has moved to the Mojave to begin the Sandstorm shakedown in earnest. To date, the robot has traveled some 700 autonomous miles in testing and reached a peak speed of 35 autonomous miles per hour in a continuous run of 115 miles.

"We're doing something that's never been done before," said Whittaker. "We have an absolute time line and a clear criterion for success. Our team has the creativity, collaboration and commitment to draw the impossible into the realm of accomplishment."

For more information on sponsors, see:
For more information about the Red Team, see:
For more information about the DARPA Challenge, see:

For More Information
Byron Spice | 412-268-9068 |