The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, aka DARPA, announced the 23 finalists who have been chosen to compete in this year’s Grand Challenge, a race between autonomous robotic vehicles over a grueling course of up to 175 miles in the Mojave Desert. A red Hummer named H1ghlander developed by a team from Carnegie Mellon University has qualified for the pole position in this year’s race. It will be competing against vehicles of all shapes and sizes including a a Jeep Grand Cherokee, a Volkswagen Touareg, and a six-wheeled truck sponsored by other schools and private companies.
DARPA started the Grand Challenge last year in response to a mandate by Congress and the Department of Defense stating that by the year 2015 one third of all military vehicles would operate completely unmanned. Last year’s contest had some promising entries, but all of the 15 vehicles competing broke down or crashed within just a few miles of the starting line. Carnegie Mellon’s entry Sandstorm went the furthest last year at 7.5 miles. It will start in third place this year. Since no one finished, the one million dollar prize went unclaimed and has been doubled this year to two million dollars. In all DARPA has spent nine million dollars on this year’s race, which is still a negligible investment considering the technological advances it stands to reap from the participants and (hopefully) winner of the race.
The organizers and contestants are both more optimistic about their chances for success this year. Not only has everyone had another year to optimize their AI, tweak their GPS, radar and other sensor systems, and fine tune their vehicles, but most have had a chance to test drive their robots in the Southwest deserts, some even covering the course of last year’s race. While DARPA will not announce the exact course of this year’s race until two hours before the start time, many competitors have already driven over hundreds of miles of similar terrain.
The race will be run on Saturday, October 8th, 2005.