Live Reports from the 2005 Darpa Grand Challenge

Our reporters deliver the latest on autonomous vehicles.

10-08-05 3:10pm PDT

Minutes after Stanley crossed the finish line, H1ghlander received a helicopter escort and huge fanfare of its own. H1ghlander appeared especially anxious to cross the finish line, speeding 20 feet past the checkered flag stop, prompting the grandstand announcer to plead “Please stop” over the PA system.

About 10 minutes after H1ghlander checked in at the finish line, a cloud of dust containing the 20-year-old Sandstorm approached. After crossing the finish line, Red Team Racing team members reattached Sandstorm’s steering wheel and drove it to the champion’s circle where it joined H1ghlander and Stanley, whose engines were still ticking away.

Although Stanley was the first entrant to cross the dusty finish line, it is not necessarily the winner of the $2 million. Race officials paused all three vehicles were multiple times during the race so they wouldn’t bunch up too much during tricky spots. Pause time doesn’t count against an entry’s overall time, and officials are scrambling to figure out exactly how much time each bot took to traverse the course. According to the official Grand Challenge website, Sandstorm actually finished the race two minutes faster than Stanley, with H1ghlander taking third place three minutes later. These results, however, have not been modified to include the pause time, and it could take a few hours for officials to determine the real winner.

Still on the course are the Gray Team’s Gray Bot (6’21”, 67 miles), TerraMax (5’55”, 47 miles), and Insight Racing’s Desert Rat (5’43”, 19 miles), although TerraMax and GrayBot were paused several times by race officials and these times do not reflect that.

TerraMax and GrayBot both refuse to give up, each vowing to run until they get stuck or until the sun goes down. In TerraMax’s case, if the sun sets on their race day, they will come back tomorrow to finish. Even if it’s mathematically impossible to win the $2 million, said a TerraMax official, they plan to keep the bot running to demonstrate its viability for military use.


10-08-05 02:33pm PDT

“I see a dust trail in the vicinity!” the grandstand announcer booms, as spectators leave their bleacher seats and cluster, three to four deep, at the fence near the finish line. “I have a visual on bot number 3. Ladies and gentlemen, here comes Stanley!”

About 500 feet from the finish line, Stanford Racing Team’s Stanley halts in its tracks, and I’m preparing myself for a last-minute heartbreaker. It turns out, though, that Stanley’s only been temporarily paused so the official Darpa lead truck, with director Anthony Tether on board, can cross the finish line first, symbolizing the victory of the Grand Challenge program.

Ceremonial necessities over with, it’s time for the Stanford Racing Team to get to the real business at hand-celebrating being the first team in history to complete an entire Grand Challenge course, and contemplating the possibility of having their pictures taken tonight with an oversized check for $2 million. As Stanley revs up for the final push across the finish line, the crowd noise becomes deafening.

It’s still conceivable another, later-starting team will finish the course in less time than Stanley has taken, but that’s becoming less likely as the afternoon wears on and other bots slow and stop. “It hasn’t been written yet,” the announcer says as two Stanford student team members dump the contents of a trashcan-sized ice bucket on their leader, Sebastian Thrun, “but I think the check books out.” Thrun piles into Stanley’s front seat with his students for an impromptu, horn-honking victory lap.

It’ll be a few more hours until the official winner of the race is determined, but, for the Stanford racing crew, what’s just happened is enough. “Before, it was a question of if we would ever be able to create cars that drive themselves,” says an exhilarated Thrun, his Blue Team T-shirt still dripping wet. “Now, it’s a question of when.”


Ed. note: Popular Science named Stanford Racing Team leader Sebastian
Thrun a Brilliant 10 award winner in October 2005. Read our profile of
Thrun [here.

10-08-05 01:42pm PDT

As Stanley enters the final stretch, just 7 miles from apparent victory, there’s palpable disappointment among teams knocked out in the earlier rounds, but also a kind of relief. Knowing they don’t have to wait around with bated breath, they’re free to relax and watch the tail end of the competition.

Fate seemed particularly cruel to Team ENSCO when its bot, Dexter, popped a flat, but advisor Lloyd Griffiths is convinced the accident wasn’t just a fluke-it might have been the direct result of a control system failure. “We might have done a sharp turn to get around an obstacle and hit a rock or something,” he says. Now that Dexter has been eliminated, Griffiths is rooting for Stanford. “They’ve got a great team and great student involvement.”

“Overall, the bot is fine-it looks like a wire came loose and caused some kind of mechanical problem,” says Team DAD’s Bruce Hall, whose modified Toyota Tundra was knocked out before reaching the halfway point of the course. “But we had a good run. Right now, we’re enjoying just sitting back and seeing how this thing plays out.”


10-08-05 1:25 pm PDT

Joyful cheers filled tent city as media, spectators, and team crews huddled around TV monitors showing live feed of Stanley taking on the treacherous Beer Bottle Pass.

“This is more exciting than we ever dreamed,” exclaimed on spectator.

Stanley, followed closely by a chase truck, shrugged off the narrow path and hundred-foot drop off and gracefully navigated the pass with as much reckless abandon as 10 mile an hour speeds allow.

While Stanley navigated Beer Bottle Pass like a pro, there were a few tenuous moments as he grazed the edge of the path, causing some on-lookers to hold their breath ever so briefly.

This was the first view many have had of Stanely in over five hours, and his friendly blue paint has been obscured by the desert’s dust, rendering him virtually unrecognizable. The next time he comes into view will be at the finish line, just seven miles away.

H1ghlander and Sandstorm are still moving along at a decent clip as they approach Beer Bottle Pass, although it appears that neither will be able to catch Stanley.


10-08-05 12:33pm PDT

Scratch Axion Racing’s Spirit from the list of contenders – it’s currently stuck in the dirt spinning its wheels 66.5 miles from the starting line. Race officials have just declared it eliminated.


10-08-05 12:33pm PDT

Though the top three teams still have more than 30 miles to go, DARPA organizers are already making finish-line preparations, flattening the dirt near the grandstands with a forklift to ensure a Zamboni-smooth finish.

It’s still too early to celebrate, though, as ENSCO team advisor Lloyd Griffiths can testify. “Things can still go wrong,” he said, sitting in the team’s tent and watching the onscreen real-time standings intently as his vehicle cruised through the middle portion of the course with flying colors. “There are so many different mechanical things that can happen. Right now, we’re just hoping Dexter keeps on trucking.” Five minutes later, Dexter was knocked out of the race, felled not by sensor malfunction or motherboard glitches, but by a flat tire.


10-08-05 12:40pm PDT

The top three entries, H1ghlander, Stanley, and Sandstorm have all run perfectly so far, with Stanley and H1ghlander challenging each other for the lead and Sandstorm pulling in at a very strong third. The biggest test of the course lies ahead though and could seriously shake things up. Beer Bottle Pass is the most treacherous stretch of the course with hanging brush, narrow path, tight turns and – oh yeah – a 100 foot drop off on one side. How each team handles this stretch could very well determine the eventual winner. In other news, Team ENSCO’s Dexter, which started nearly an hour after H1ghlander but had remarkable pulled within 20 miles of the leaders, just blew a tire and is out of the race. This disaster leaves only a few teams with a legitamate shot of catching the lead three – Team TerraMax, Axion Racing’s Spirit, and Gray Team’s GrayBot.


10-08-05 12:33pm PDT

Stanley and Highlander are still virtually tied with only the famed Beerbottle Pass to go, keeping tensions high in the spectator tent. Meanwhile, a couple of other bots have joined the drop-out list. Virginia Tech’s second entry, Cliff, and the Desert Buckeyes’ Ion bit the dust almost simultaneously, bringing the total casualty count to 11.


10-08-05 11:51am PDT

Virginia Tech’s Rocky is the course’s latest casualty. Three hours and forty-five minutes in, the vehicle’s control system stopped for unknown
reasons and was not able to restart. It had 51 miles under its belt before succumbing, though-not too shabby. VT sibling â€bot Cliff is still in the running, currently coming up on mile 55. Just another demonstration of why having two vehicles in this race is an excellent insurance policy.


10-08-05 11:38am PDT

Now that all the vehicles have left the starting line, the atmosphere in the Buffalo Bill’s parking lot is a little more subdued-although that doesn’t mean the action on the course is slowing up. The top three racers, Red Team, Red Team Too, and Stanford, are still neck-and-neck, exchanging the leader role every few minutes.

To keep up with the latest developments, the crowd is migrating away from the bleachers and toward a nearby tent, where Darpa’s 3-D mapping software tracks the locations of the vehicles in real time. A giant LCD screen represents each vehicle as a blinking, moving numeral against the backdrop of the course, and the line to catch a glimpse of the display stretches out the door.

This may be a “desert course” in Darpa PR-speak, but the landscape is nothing like the Sahara-unbroken stretches of white sand for miles on end. Yucca, grass clumps, and low, scrubby bushes sprout every few feet like unruly tufts of hair, making the course a monster for even the ruggedest SUV. Of course, some teams relish the challenge as an opportunity to strut their engineering stuff. “The more difficult the course is,” a Team TerraMax member told me, “the better it is for us.”


10-08-05 11:18 am PDT

Stanford’s Stanley has caught up to Red Team Too’s H1ghlander and is attempting to pass and take the lead in the race. Both vehicles have been on the road for about 5 hours and are 97 miles into the course.

– Bjorn

**Race Standings Update

10-08-05 11:07am PDT**

The first three vehicles to leave this morning, H1ghlander, Stanley, and Sandstorm, remain in a tight pack. H1ghlander is 93 miles into the course, and Stanley and Sandstorm are close behind at 91 and 89 miles respectively.

Team Enesco (72 miles) and Axion Racing’s Spirit (63 miles) round out the top five distance wise. Keep in mind that the first bot to cross the finish isn’t necessarily the winner-Team Enesco started tenth today-about 45 minutes after H1ghlander – and is rapidly making up distance on the lead pack and may complete the course in less time.

Recently eliminated vehicles include Golem 2 (34 miles), SciAutronics/Auburn Engineering Rascal (28 miles), Princeton University Prospect 11 (21 miles), Team Cornell (21 miles), MonsterMoto (19 miles), and Team Caltech’s Alice, which slammed into a concrete barricade about 20 miles into the course.


10-08-05 11:04am PDT

Darpa’s offer to bring busloads of journalists to a vantage point near the course’s halfway mark was a generous one, but unfortunately, the execution’s a little off. Flummoxed by the sameness of Nevada desert roads, our driver gets hopelessly lost and has to resort to borrowing a cell phone from a passenger in the front row to call for help. “Too bad we don’t have autonomous drivers already,” a German journalist sitting across from me cracks. Thankfully, a nearby Darpa checkpoint officer sets us straight, and we’re soon pulling into a deserted lot staked out with dozens of tripods.

Ten minutes after we arrive at the site, which overlooks a stretch of dirt road 68 miles into the course, H1ghlander’s headlights appear on the horizon, shining through a whirling dust cloud. The bot arrives flanked by its full entourage: a chase vehicle, which provides support in case of an accident, and a chopper hovering on either side to collect video footage. Stanley chugs by about five minutes later, sporting what looks like a quarter-inch-thick coating of dust, but otherwise none the worse for wear. Sandstorm, trailing along a few miles behind, looks a little confused, veering from side to side as if being steered by a drunk driver. I have an instinctive urge to cheer the vehicles on as they whiz past, but remind myself there’s no one inside to appreciate encouragement from the sidelines.

The press gaggle’s general mood is one of excitement and chaos, but Darpa personnel don’t hesitate to intervene from time to time to make sure order is strictly enforced. When a journalist tries to leave the site’s fenced boundaries to get a better angle on his shot as Sandstorm approaches, he receives a bootcamp-style dressing-down from an organizer, who accuses him of “violating rules made by the Bureau of Land Management and the State of Nevada” and threatens to revoke his media credential.

Just as we’re leaving the site, we catch another glimpse of H1ghlander from the window of the bus, this time chugging up a steep, powdery incline. Halfway up the hill, it slides agonizingly backward for about 10 feet, then, inch by inch, crawls forward to the top, as if channeling the spirit of the Little Engine That Could. This time, I can’t resist letting out a little cheer. These competitors may be robots, but they’ve got some serious guts.


**Race Update

10-08-05 11:55am PDT**

Caltech’s Alice caused the first tow truck-worthy wreck today, plowing over concrete barricades (k-rails) and driving up the observation hill where dozens of media members were reporting on the race. The wreck occurred around 9:40 am in the corridor that loops back near the grandstand, about 8 miles into the race.

“We won’t know why this happened until we look at the log,” said Caltech team member Lars Cremean. “She probably saw an object that wasn’t really there, causing her to go off the road. The exact same thing happened yesterday on the practice run. She did a jog around a couple objects that weren’t there. It’s probably a problem with her radar.”

It has been an exceptionally windy day here in Primm, and the dust clouds trailing the vehicles are nothing compared to what the gusts are kicking up. It could be one of these dust clouds, Cremean suggested, that caused Alice to think she needed to dodge an object on the road.

Initially, Cremean felt optimistic about Alice’s chances of returning to the race. “If they unpause her, then she’ll go forward until she realizes she can’t go any further, and then she’ll reverse. Then she’ll probably skirt along the birm until she finds a gap in the k-rails. If she could get alongside a k-rail, she could power through it.”

But even as spectators started chanting “Alice, Alice, Alice,” word that her steering was shot and that she was leaking “dangerous fluids” began to ripple through the crowd, a tow truck showed up, and Alice was officially pulled out of the race.

Alice’s wreck shut down the corridor, and as the rescue crew loaded Alice onto a flat bed truck and a bulldozer reset the k-rail, TerraMax grumbled impatiently a few hundred yards back. TerraMax barely waited for the bulldozer to get out of the way before rumbled back to life and chugged down the road.


**Race Update

10-08-05 09:43am PDT**

8:44 am – Golem 2 has joined the list of eliminated vehicles, coming to a halt after 22.4 miles.

9:21 am – Team TerraMax, one of the crowd favorites because of its immense size and lime green paintjob, takes off into the desert. TerraMax plans to muscle its way over the rocky roads and is one of the favorites to complete the course.

9:35 am – H1ghlander continues to push along – running at about 25 mph, it has covered 73 miles.

But Stanley and Sandstorm aren’t far behind, having traveled 69 and 66 miles respectively.

Spirit and Team Ensco round out the top five in terms of distance at 45 and 44 miles respectively.

9:36 am – Team Caltech’s Alice has wedged herself between to cement pilings about 8 miles into the course. It is not officially eliminated, but its chances of returning to the race are not good.


Elimination Update

10-08-05 08:41am PDT

8:34 am – Princeton is no longer running (22.2 miles)

8:34 am – MonsterMoto is no longer running (7.2 miles)

8:37 am – Team DAD is no longer running (26.2 miles) – Rotating sensor on roof stopped spinning – couldn’t recover or restart.


Checking Out

10-08-05 08:30am PDR

Three entries have been eliminated. Team Cornell’s Spider washed out about an hour and 15 minutes and 25 miles into the race, while the MITRE Meteorites and Indy Robot Racing Team have scratched before leaving the starting pit.

Red Team Too’s H1ghlander continues to lead the pack, having crossed 50 miles of the Mojave in just over two hours. Stanley and Sandstorm are in quick pursuit, though, and are only a few miles behind the race leader.

DAD has jumped up into fourth place, and Spirit has overcome its slow early goings to move into fifth.

More details on the eliminations as they become available.


Passing the Grandstand

10-08-05 07:35am PDT

A little more than 8 miles into the course, teams loop back too a corridor near the grandstand, sirens and lights blazing to the cheers of hundreds of spectators.

As the bots approach the corridor, they almost seem shy to pass a second time. But, after carefully negotiating a small turn and a couple of bumps, their courage picks up and they blast through the final leg of the first section of the course.

H1ghlander passed through about 20 minutes after it left the gates, with Stanley and Sandstorm 7 and 12 minutes behind respectively. Fifteen minutes later, Desert Tortoise came tearing through with DAD hot on its heels †both contestants have passed Axion Racing’s Spirit, which haltingly passed 4 minutes later.

The trucks must negotiate a sharp turn and a steep incline just after the corridor, but these won’t be close to the trickiest obstacles they encounter today-especially with reports of a loose cow on the course.

Meanwhile, UCLA’s Golem Group cheers on Golem 2, the seventh vehicle to blast out of the gates this cloudy morning. As Golem 2 takes off, it honks a melody Tchaikovsky would be proud off. “We did that for the benefit of the drivers in the chase vehicles,” says one Golem Group team member. “Actually,” he laughs, “they asked us to change it because it’s so annoying, but we told them that was too hard.”


They’re cruisin’

10.08.05 07:35 AM PDT

It’s only an hour into the race, and records are already being set. Seems too good to be true: Six teams are out on the course, no one’s broken down so far, and race starter H1ghlander has made it through 28 miles of rocky desert terrain, going four times farther than last year’s top-finishing team! Even if the race ended right here, Darpa couldn’t ask for a better public relations coup.


Pole Positions

10-08-2005 at 06:12 AM PDT

The final route for the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge was unveiled just two hours before the Opening Ceremonies this morning. This year’s course-about 132 miles-will be markedly more difficult than last year’s, featuring several narrow roads, hairpin turns, low-hanging brush, three tunnels and at least one 100-foot drop off.
In order to win the $2 million prize, the vehicles can’t stray from the course and must finish in 10 hours or less. Besides staying on course and following speed limits in tortoise-crossing zones, the only rule is that the vehicles must be fully autonomous, relying only on their navigational equipment to finish the race. No remote controls allowed!
The field of 23 was whittled down from an original field of 195 applicants through a series of tests and qualifying runs. Fifteen states will be represented today, with entries hailing from 17 universities and colleges and one high school.

2005 Finalists and Starting Positions
To prevent any major disaster right at the start, officials will be sending the vehicles off in five minute intervals.

1 – #25 Red Team Too †H1ghlander (Pittsburgh, PA)

2 – #03 Stanford Racing Team †Stanford Roadrunner (Palo Alto, CA)

3 – #19 Red Team Racing †Sandstorm (Pittsburgh, PA)

4 – #23 Axion Racing †Spirit (Westlake Village, CA)

5 – #15 Intelligent Vehicle Safety Systems I †Desert Tortoise (Littleton, CO)

6 – #04 Team DAD †“Dad, are we there yet?” (Morgan Hill, CA)

7 – #18 The Golem Group/UCLA †Golem 2 (Santa Monica, CA)

8 – #26 Team Cornell †Spider (Ithaca, NY)

9 – #41Princeton University †Prospect II (Princeton, NJ)

10 – #28 Team ENSCO †Dexter (Deployable Extreme Terrain Enabled Robot) (Springfield, VA)

11 – #16 MonsterMoto †Jackbot (Cedar Park, TX)

12 – #20 SciAutonics/Auburn Engineering †RASCAL (Robust Autonomous Sensor-Controlled All Terrain Land Vehicle) (Thousand Oaks, CA)

13- #09 Virginia Tech Team Rocky †Rocky (Blacksburg, VA)

14 – #10 Desert Buckeyes †ION (Intelligent Off-road Navigator) (Columbus, OH) 15 – #38 Virginia Tech Grand Challenge Team †Cliff (Blacksburg, VA)

16 – #30 Gray Team †GrayBot (Metairie, LA)

17 – #02 Team Caltech †Alice (Pasadena, CA)

18 – #08 CIMAR †NaviGATOR (Gainesville, FL)

19 – #21 Team TerraMax †TerraMax (OshKosh, WI)

20 – #14 Insight Racing †Desert Rat (Cary, NC)

21 – #01Mojavaton †Xboxx (Grand Junction, CO)

22 – #24 Team CajunBot †Cajunbot (Lafayette, LA)

23 – #37 MITRE Meteorites †The Meteor (McLean, VA)


Ready To Go

10-08-2005 at 05:57 AM PST

It’s half an hour before starting time, and though the sky over Primm hasn’t yet started to lighten, excitement is already running high. Team members are hunched intently over their laptops, glowing screens standing out like beacons in the dark parking lot. A pack of Segways weaves aimlessly in and out around the sponsor tents. Everyone’s antsy; after keeping vigil over their vehicles through the night, the teams are anxious to get this show on the road.

I haven’t gotten my caffeine fix yet, so I struggle to keep my eyes open as Grand Challenge program manager Tom Kurjanowicz lets us in on some details about the previously-secret 132-mile route. After leaving the starting line just outside the casino parking lot, the bots will embark on a loop road with a radius of only a few miles, giving the sleep-deprived spectators in the grandstands ample opportunity for a close-up look at the action.

After completing this initial circuit, the vehicles will strike out to the north-and the course will get a lot hairier. Three tunnels along the route mean the bots will periodically lose GPS capability and be forced to rely only on their camera- or radar-based obstacle detection equipment to find their way around. The final stretch of the course, which the vehicles aren’t expected to hit until late afternoon, includes the harrowing Beerbottle Pass–ten-foot-wide dirt roads, clumps of overhanging brush, and a several-hundred-foot dropoff to the left. Kurjanowicz says this year’s course will be tougher than last year’s by far, and that’s saying something, considering no one covered even a tenth of the course’s planned distance in ’04. Darpa’s obviously raised the bar, but will the bots be up to the challenge?


10-08-2005 at 04:04 AM Primm, Nevada

As the sun rises over Buffalo Bill’s Casino in Primm, Nevada on October 8, 23 unmanned robotic vehicles will rumble over a starting line drawn in sand just beyond the parking lot. A $2 million grand prize awaits the first entrant to complete the grueling 150-mile desert course, guaranteed to be replete with potholes, rocks, and hairpin turns. At T minus 12 hours, onlookers might expect to see programmers and mechanics making frantic preparations †especially considering that no vehicle in last year’s race made it more than 7 miles before breaking down.

For many of the competing teams, however, the last hours before the race are dead time, not do-or-die time. Virginia Tech team member Patrick Currier doesn’t plan on getting much sleep tonight, but he won’t stay up making last-minute tweaks. He and his teammates will just be babysitting their vehicle, Rocky, as its switched-on engine idles all night long. This way, he explains, they can avoid the havoc a restart might wreak with the vehicle’s GPS system. “We’ll just be sitting here all night, playing cards and sleeping in shifts,” he says.

Tonight, the entire tent city bordering the starting line is emitting laid-back vibes. Many team members are spending the evening celebrating in a barbecue tent with a lavishly-appointed open bar, the air thick with grill smoke and conversation. They’re not blowing off the race, they just realize that-after spending 16-hour days in from of computer screens, logging thousands of miles on practice courses, and breezing through last week’s qualification event-it’s time to take a rest. Like Olympic coaches watching their athletes line up at the blocks, all they can do is wait, sit back, and find out what their protgs are capable of. “This event is almost an anticlimax for a lot of us here,” says Nick Miller, who helped build the highly-touted H1ghlander bot for Carnegie Mellon’s Red Team Too. “All the hard work was in the development, and that was done months ago.”
That doesn’t mean teams have lost sight of the pitfalls waiting for them on race day. For starters, the course layout will remain a mystery until two and a half hours before the start of the race, when teams will receive a CD with the course route and insert it into their racers’ computers. Though the teams have spent months fine-tuning the programs that determine how the robots attack the desert terrain, the vehicles must run completely unassisted once they leave the gate.

To win, the teams must also cover the obstacle-laden 150-mile course in under 10 hours, averaging a relatively speedy 15 miles per hour in territory better suited to mules than trucks. Each vehicle will approach this task differently, and the Red Team’s emphasis will be on traveling as fast as the course allows. “We’ll look at the speed limits of the course,” says Chris Urmson, one of Miller’s teammates. “We want to go slow enough to finish, but fast enough to win.” But with high speed comes a greater risk of crashing, and some teams plan to go slow and steady rather than just bombing along. “We’re taking the tortoise and the hare approach,” Currier says. “We’re the tortoise. If we win, it’s because someone else wrecked at 25 miles per hour.”

All the teams here have faced off at least four times in the qualifying races leading up to the Grand Challenge, so they know each other’s entries-and each other-well. When asked what advantage rival Stanford Racing Team may have over his Red Team entry Sandstorm, Urmson pointed to Thrun’s bright blue logo-covered race jersey and quipped, “Stanford has a little more fashion sense.”

Tomorrow’s race guarantees excitement, clouds of dust, and probably at least one appearance from a tow truck. But during this sunset barbeque, most teams wait calmly, knowing their job is done and that it’s all up to the robots now. “On race day it’s sit back and watch the show,” Miller says. “We turn it on, and it should run just like a washing machine.”