What went wrong? In a sense, nothing. These results were-or should have been-entirely unsurprising. Unlike the computer whirring on your desk, mobile robots have to thrash around in the real world, which makes the entire enterprise finicky and unpredictable. The 15 machines that took the starting line in Barstow, California, were attempting a quantum jump in performance over the robots that putter around university artificial-intelligence labs, avoiding table legs at one or two miles an hour. To have a shot at the deadline and the big prize on what was ultimately a 142-mile course (prudently downsized to make a 10-hour, one-day race a feasible goal) from Barstow to Primm, Nevada, the Grand Challenge bots would have had to average nearly 15 mph, and in the flat stretches reach speeds of up to 50 mph. They would stay in one piece by tracking via GPS technology the latitude-longitude waypoints that defined the course and avoiding obstacles with their own internal sensors: video cameras, laser scanners, radar and the like. Good luck. By comparison, the winning vehicle in the last Baja 1000 off-road race, with an actual human behind the wheel, averaged just over 50 mph, though on much stiffer terrain.
Traversing less than six percent of the course may not sound like a grand result, but it should be noted that the four lead bots did get through the first section of the course, a flat looping dirt road that passed through four fence-gate openings, each only about 12 feet wide. After mile 4, the narrow, rocky road begins its snake-line ascent of a vertiginous ridge, a series of tight switchbacks with cliff drop-off on one side, hillside on the other, and heartbreak written all over it. Making it only partway up Daggett Ridge is no shame.
After the race, some of the robotics teams grumbled that DARPA-the Defense Department's R&D wing, which staged the race in an effort to tap the deep well of American amateur ingenuity-had guaranteed that its Grand Challenge would be a short and unhappy one with Daggett Ridge so close to the start, instead of reversing course and running the race from Primm to Barstow instead. It´s a debatable point. The Primm area has its own minefields, notably silt beds and a steep ridgeline about 12 miles from the finish.
If DARPA was plainly guilty of anything, it was not managing inflated expectations. Instead of billing this inaugural Grand Challenge as a not-ready-for-prime-time field test to calibrate what was needed for future efforts, race manager Negron, in the months leading up to the checkered flag, continued to predict a victor. (At a press conference before the race's start, Negron´s second-in-command, Tom Strat, wisely if belatedly redefined victory as a matter of winning young techie hearts and minds, not miles traveled: "I can't tell you if the vehicles will go 1 mile or 20 miles, but I can say the Grand Challenge has already been a great success.")
DARPA had gone so far as to remake a 6,500-seat arena in Buffalo Bill´s Resort & Casino in Primm (a cheap Vegas knockoff a half hour southwest of the city) into the Challenge Operations Center. Once the bots were well launched, the media were to leave the spartan charms of the starting-gate bleachers by Barstow's Slash X Ranch Cafe roadhouse and hightail it over to Buffalo Bill's to nosh, listen to a smooth-rock cover band, and follow the race progress on two huge screens running bits of video footage shot from DARPA helicopters as the bots made their way to the finish line just outside the Buffalo Bill´s parking lot. But what to do when the race was effectively over by 9 a.m. and officially over by 11?
At noon, the Buffalo Bill's operations center had the sad, pretentious look of an overproduced birthday party or bar mitzvah for which the guests had all declined to show up. The eye couldn't fail to notice one tall, powerfully built 60-year-old man slumped back in his chair. William "Red" Whittaker, CMU robotics professor and eponymous leader of the Red Team, had made sure he was in Primm well ahead of the 10-hour deadline, even as his team's vehicle, Sandstorm, was being dug out of the Daggett Ridge dirt. "We've come back from worse," he said, looking utterly poleaxed.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.