Pentagon’s Robot Race Stalls in Gate

Times Staff Writer

TerraHawk, a driverless robotic vehicle that doesn’t look anything like its namesake, had barely lumbered out of the starting chute at the California Speedway when it suddenly jerked to a stop and began rocking from side to side.

“Oh no. That’s not a good sign,” Todd Mendenhall said as his six-wheel creation started to bellow and spew smoke. The Palos Verdes satellite engineer reluctantly gave the signal to have his vehicle shut down by remote.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 15, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday March 15, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Robot race -- A photo caption in Thursday’s Section A describing one of the entries in the Pentagon’s “Grand Challenge” for driverless vehicles mistakenly referred to Team Enesco. It was Team Ensco.

Still, TerraHawk fared better than most. Vehicle after vehicle failed to get out of the starting gate because of computer glitches. Those that could get going turned the racetrack into a high-tech demolition derby as one after another veered off course and crashed into concrete barriers or other obstacles.


“It at least made it out of the chute,” Mendenhall said of his caterpillar-like vehicle. “I’m happy with that.”

TerraHawk is one of 21 vehicles trying to qualify for a highly unusual race Saturday. The object is to get a vehicle across 210 miles of rugged desert terrain from Barstow to Primm, Nev., in less than 10 hours -- without any human involvement, on board or remotely.

The prize for winning: $1 million.

The “Grand Challenge” is being sponsored by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Its goal is to spur the development of robotic vehicles that can autonomously deliver supplies or roam dangerous areas scouting for enemy troops.

But now, after three days of trial runs, only four vehicles have been able to complete the 1 1/4-mile qualification course, which includes hairpin curves, 10-foot cattle gates and a minivan blocking the course. They have to do it twice to get into the race.

Competitors and Pentagon officials are wondering whether any vehicle will survive. The Pentagon is considering loosening qualification requirements and perhaps shortening the race.

“We’re considering all possibilities,” said Col. Jose Negron, the Pentagon’s program manager for the race. Another possibility is holding the race again next year if no one finishes this year.

If any vehicle does complete the race, it will mark a significant public relations victory for the Pentagon and a major step forward in robotics research.

“It’ll help accelerate technology in robotics, particularly those that can be used in the battlefield to help keep our soldiers out of harm’s way,” said Tom Strat, DARPA’s deputy program manager for the event.

But for now, the vehicles -- all heavily modified and mounted with an assortment of radar, sonar and lasers -- could be mistaken for rejects from a “Star Wars” movie. They include the Ghost Rider, a $3,000 motorcycle; Cliff, a four-wheel-drive golf cart; Sandstorm, a Humvee with its roof cut off; and TerraMax, a 15-ton military truck painted neon green.

No wonder that the California Speedway, which usually holds NASCAR and Indy car races, seemed more like a BattleBot arena than a high-speed racetrack.

The TerraMax truck from Oshkosh, Wis., pushed a highway concrete barrier out of the way as it left the starting chute and slammed into a minivan, pushing it 5 feet before event organizers pressed the remote kill button -- a required feature on these machines. Another vehicle lost its global positioning signal and looked for it for 10 minutes, turning in circles, before it was shut down.

“It’s disappointing,” said George Chandler, a retired nuclear engineer who drove from San Diego to watch the action. “They’ve been working on robots for a long time, so you figure they could do better than this.”

Part of the reason for the disheartening showing is that most of the competitors are underfunded garage tinkerers, junkyard warriors and robot fanatics. One team was made up of high school students, most of whom don’t even drive.

On the first day of the qualifying runs, only two vehicles -- a modified Acura MDX sport-utility vehicle built by Palos Verdes High School students and a 1996 Chevy Tahoe SUV operated by a team from Caltech -- were able to leave the starting gate on their own. But both veered off course and crashed into concrete barriers before completing the course.

Six other vehicles had sat motionless at the chute, some for 30 minutes or more, as computer glitches kept them from driving off on their own. Each eventually returned to the garage, where team members worked to fix the problems.

“That’s why its called the Grand Challenge,” said Tom Laymon, a Honda executive who got the company to donate the $40,000 Acura to his son’s high school, the only one in the competition. Only two of the 40 team members have a driver’s license.

Rough starts, harebrained disasters -- and sometimes, overwhelming breakthroughs -- are a DARPA specialty. The $2-billion-a-year agency for the Pentagon helped create the Internet and the global positioning system as well as radar-evading stealth jets and pilotless spy planes. It has also spent millions on such kooky projects as Viet Cong-hunting robotic elephants and, more recently, an online futures market to predict assassinations and bombings by encouraging investors to bet on such crimes.

For all its heritage in creating leading-edge technology, the agency has found that developing the necessary sensors, software and mechanisms to build an autonomous land vehicle much more difficult than anticipated.

Programming a vehicle to drive itself is like “trying to make a drunk, blind driver drive across the desert at night while getting steering directions from a back-seat passenger looking down at a GPS terminal,” said Rob Meyer, a firefighter from Tucson who pulled out of the competition at the last minute. “It’s far more complex than people think.”

With defense contractors slow to come up with such a vehicle, the agency made an unusual decision. For a few million dollars to sponsor the race, DARPA officials figured, someone might come up with a promising technology that the Pentagon could use without spending hundreds of millions of dollars to conduct its own research.

“They’re already investing hundreds of millions of dollars on unmanned ground vehicles, and they may or may not have to pay out the million dollars here,” said John Pike, a defense analyst for the think tank “I can understand how they might be able to convince themselves to do to this.”

All of the teams raised the money to develop their vehicles, ranging from as little as $20,000 for the Tucson firefighter, who also borrowed money from his wife; to as much as $3 million by Carnegie Mellon University, which was able to secure major backers, including Boeing Co. and Intel Corp.

“They’re getting millions of dollars of research for $1 million,” said Kurt Risic, TerraHawk’s mechanical fabricator. “It’s a cheap way for the Pentagon to let someone else develop the technology for them.”

TerraHawk got at least $100,000 in funding from Northrop Grumman Corp., where Mendenhall works as a orbital engineer. In return, Mendenhall agreed to share any new technology that he developed for the vehicle, one of the few in the competition built from scratch.

Others have relied on commercially available vehicles such as SUVs or dune buggies, stripping away much of the interior to install computers and other electronics.

“I’ve helped put up three satellites, and I think this is more complex,” said Mendenhall, who along with about a dozen other volunteers fabricated and assembled the vehicle at a garage in Gardena.

For all the high-tech image, TerraHawk is a conglomeration of parts and wires from junkyards, trash cans and retail computer stores. A plastic water bottle was jury-rigged with a hose to serve as the overfill tank for its engine compressor.

“You grab whatever you can and drill holes in it,” said Don Lariviere, a Honda design engineer who helped build TerraHawk.

For many teams, the cost of putting together the vehicles didn’t include thousands of hours, mostly burning the midnight oil and working through weekends.

“The hardest part about this wasn’t technology,” said Sundar Sundareswaran, an engineer with Rockwell Scientific and a SciAutonics I team member from Thousand Oaks. “It was just juggling all the personal issues of working and taking care of the family.”

As the third day of qualifying ended Wednesday, DARPA officials were buoyed by what appeared to be significant improvements by the teams. Three more teams were able to complete the course, including SciAutonics II and Caltech.

TerraHawk also fared better: It made it halfway around the course before it “got lost” and turned around.

UC Berkeley student Anthony Levandowski is optimistic that his Ghost Rider entry will fare better in today’s trials.

Ghost Rider, based on a motorcycle, is one of the more novel entries. Because motorcycles are inherently unstable, Levandowski developed a gyroscope that helps keep the vehicle stable by continually adjusting the front steering wheel, similar to the way a child wiggles the front wheel of a bicycle to keep it from tipping over.

The motorcycle fell over more than 150 times during early test runs, Levandowski said. In its first trial run Tuesday, it fell after traveling about 15 feet.

What will happen if it falls over again?

“We’re finished,” Levandowski said.