THE GOAL: To build the world's first truly autonomous robotic land vehicle.
THE PLAYERS: Two dozen teams of robotics pioneers, garage tinkerers and high school eggheads.
THE TEST: A 210-mile off-road race from L.A. to Las Vegas.
William "Red" Whittaker -- doing his best George C. Scott doing his best George S. Patton -- strides before an oversize American flag and addresses his troops. "What we are looking at is a list of top 10 things that need to be done," he barks. "These things will be retired by Friday of next week." It's a November morning in Pittsburgh, this hangar that houses Carnegie Mellon University's Planetary Robotics Lab is drafty, and Whittaker's troops -- 30 CMU undergrads and graduate students -- are overextended and sleep-deprived. In the corner sits a decidedly earthbound military-grade Humvee stripped to its skeleton; the team hasn't even begun outfitting the thing with the sophisticated electronics that will, in theory, enable it, four months hence, to drive all by itself some 210 miles off-road from outside Los Angeles to Las Vegas -- and in so doing win the $1 million DARPA Grand Challenge. One of the Whittaker rank and file has the temerity to raise his hand. The vehicle's isolation shocks need more verification work, he says: "We can't risk damage to a primary component." Whittaker, an ex-marine turned robotics professor, pulls himself up to his full 6 feet 4. "Well," he says, "I reiterate: You've had weeks, you've had mock-ups, and I just decline. This is a question of technical ambition versus solid execution. It's time to kill technical ambition."
A couple thousand miles west, Anthony Levandowski has for a week been catching his nightly ration of sleep in a makeshift basement bedroom, just a few steps below the converted guestroom that serves as his workshop in his south Berkeley, California, home. The 23-year-old University of California, Berkeley, industrial engineering grad student -- and DARPA Grand Challenge aspirant -- has scheduled an important early field test for tomorrow morning. "My initial goal was to have the full remote control and some autonomous control done by last weekend," he says, "but that didn't happen, so now I'm in the basement. It helps keep me focused on the task." The task, as Levandowski has defined it for himself and for a handful of undergraduate helpers, is to build not just an autonomous off-road vehicle, something that has thus far eluded the best efforts of billion-dollar defense contractors -- but to build an autonomous off-road motorcycle. Nine months in, he is beginning to feel the weight of this audacious design decision. Tonight Levandowski permits himself no downtime in his bedroom of shame; he works straight through, struggling with kinks in the program that controls the steering, the crucial link in the software chain. His workshop door is open to the street so he
doesn't asphyxiate himself. "I don't care about the million bucks," Levandowski says. "It's more about realizing that I can actually do something that fairly intelligent people have told
me I can't. Right now, they're winning."
A few days later and 400 miles south, the kiddie corps is on the move. Sort of. "We're not stuck," says Tom Laymon, "but we are getting stuck." It's a crisp, sun-sharpened afternoon, and Laymon has tentatively nosed a stock Acura SUV off a path in California's Mojave Desert and into a patch of loose-packed sand, which has immediately begun to devour the truck's wheels and suspension. Laymon is not a high school student (he is, in fact, a vice president of American Honda) and thus he is not an actual team member of the Palos Verdes High School Road Warriors, the team that has emerged as the against-all-odds Bad News Bears entry in the DARPA Grand Challenge. Laymon is an "adult mentor" to the Road Warriors: one of the many parents who happen to be well connected in the defense, aeronautics or automotive worlds, and who are thus supporting -- and at times threatening to usurp -- their children's efforts. The SUV, though, is packed with legit Road Warriors, shouting advice, lobbing wisecracks, and otherwise enjoying this preliminary manned desert test-drive. "Hey," shouts 15-year-old Katrina deSimone from the far backseat. "I don't know how we're gonna use the car for the race if we destroy it here."
Over the past 20 years, the individual components needed to build an autonomous off-road vehicle have been fairly well worked out: the laser, radar and sonar sensor systems that are the vehicle's eyes; the GPS system that locates the vehicle in the world by triangulating a position from satellite beacons; the mapping systems that allow real-world visual and topographical information to be compressed into onboard computerized maps. But to date, no one has put them together well enough. ("Systems fusion," it's called.) Certainly not well enough for a vehicle to negotiate rugged terrain over long distances all by its lonesome.
When DARPA -- the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Defense Department's R&D wing -- began cogitating on an ambitious 2001 Congressional mandate to make one-third of the military's ground vehicles unmanned by the year 2015, it decided to throw open the field with the Grand Challenge. Let the academics and garage tinkerers knock themselves out trying to solve the puzzle of off-road robotics, and if terrific solutions emerge, they can be developed and executed by the big defense contractors -- which are, for the most part, hanging back from the race. "Our goal was to jump-start the technology," says Air Force Colonel Jose Negron, Grand Challenge program director, "by galvanizing the interest that was out there, especially among people who previously had little or no connection with the government or the big defense contracting companies." In other words, less Star Wars, more Road Warrior.
On the strength of their race-application technical papers, some 25 teams, drawn mostly from the ranks of universities and entrepreneurially minded engineers, had by December '03 made the final callback to nail the Mel Gibson part in DARPA's $1 million production. Savvy race handicappers might take a fancy to overbot powerhouses like Caltech, Team TerraMax (a collaboration between Ohio State University and Oshkosh Truck Corp.) and, with two vehicles entered in the race, SciAutonics, a private team from the L.A. area with a core of engineers from the Rockwell Scientific Company. Nice teams all. But a close look at three other qualifiers might better reveal the nature of the overall enterprise, the mix of motivations and aptitudes among a group of people who passionately want to do too much in too little time for not enough money.
The Carnegie Mellon Red Team, led by Whittaker, is the consensus race favorite, the robotics establishment team par excellence, grinding away at incremental improvements in the best existing technology in its methodical, quasi-military way. Levandowski's Blue Team holds down the opposite end of the spectrum: It's the brainchild of one self-appointed Big Thinker who's betting his young career on a bold idea -- single-track motorcycle locomotion -- and hoping a million bothersome technical details sort themselves out as best they can. Somewhere in the middle lie the Palos Verdes High School Road Warriors. The team has a split personality -- split between, on the one side,
a 16-year-old genius and his high-tech stage mother together bent on pursuing the visionary technical muse and, on the other, a cabal of competition-minded engineer parents who want to make damn sure the team turns in a decent performance in a race it never figured to be in.
Even if most of the factories in Pittsburgh shut down years ago, the western Pennsylvania landscape of rough-hewn valleys and sharp ravines still feels industrial, freshly excavated. Which is to say, it's Red Whittaker's kind of town: the blue-collar vibe, the aura of flinty Scottish workaholism that is Andrew Carnegie's legacy to the university he founded. "I enjoy that work ethic," Whittaker says. He is leaning forward in his office chair, taking exactly one hour off from his normal schedule to talk to me after the conclusion of the Wednesday-morning Red Team robot class. "Engineering isn't a stepping stone to med school or law school for the majority of the people you've met this morning. The technical life is their means to the grand future."
A man who names his Grand Challenge team after himself isn't averse to a little mythologizing, self- or otherwise. The Red stories are legion, faithfully reported by the Pittsburgh press -- like the time one of his climbing partners died in a fall on Mt. Chacraraju in the Peruvian Andes. When the local authorities declined to retrieve the body, Whittaker flew to Peru, climbed the mountain, and brought his friend down himself.
Clearly, this is someone who likes to see a job through. For the Grand Challenge, Whittaker has broken down the Red Team's preparation into three phases: formulation, development and field-testing. All along the plan has been to get a core team out to Barstow, California, where the race will begin, by January to run the vehicle continuously under race conditions until the inevitable bugs are worked out. What this means in practice is that the team is constantly bumping against internal deadlines, necessitating all-nighters in October and November.
By way of making the point that non-robotic life responsibilities should only fuel dedication to the cause, Whittaker offers up Chris Urmson, 27, just shy of his Ph.D. and the team's resident software genius. Urmson and his wife had the inopportune timing to have had their first child right before the Red Team went into overdrive. "Wow," I mutter, almost to myself. "What do you mean, 'Wow'?" Whittaker fairly roars. "There are people in the military right now who don't see their children for months. There's nothing heroic or special going on here." When I suggest that it might actually be easier to be stationed in another country than to have to come home every night at midnight or 3 a.m. and face your wife, who's single-parenting your newborn, Whittaker fixes me with a look and says, "Maybe you have the wrong wife." Wow. I'm only visiting CMU for a couple of days and already I'm being asked to consider a divorce for the good of the team. He elaborates. "You get right down to those questions, Am I really living the life I choose?" he says. "I am who I am when I do this work. Am I counting the days until I get my life back? No, it's not like that. If this is what you're born for, this is your life."
Whittaker has been one of the few hardy pioneers ("a godfather of the tradition," as he puts it) who have found truly useful niches for autonomous machines: his Dante robot that hunted for meteorites in Antarctica in 1993; the Pioneer robot that assessed structural damage at Chernobyl in 2000; the Groundhog robot that mapped a 3,500-foot mine shaft in Pennsylvania this past May. The race at hand has yet to be run and Whittaker is already thinking about the next series of technical battles that he can lead his Red Team into, what he calls the Grand Challenge afterlife -- smart cars, for instance, that could wrest control of the wheel from an incapacitated driver. "We race for the future of robotics," Whittaker says. "Competition can catapult a culture from the laboratory into the world."