UAF attempting to build robot vehicle

$2 million prize offered for robust, autonomous, robotic transport that drives itself over 142-mile obstacle course

Posted: Monday, April 12, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Slow and steady wins the race.

And the Arctic Tortoise has a chance at victory - next time. That's the philosophy of Rick Ruhkick, team leader of a project at the University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks which is preparing for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency "Grand Challenge."

The idea behind the competition, which now carries a $2 million grand prize, is to build a robust, autonomous robotic vehicle for the U.S military that can drive itself over a 142-mile obstacle course in less than 10 hours.

The UAF team nearly got the Tortoise to the preliminary event held in Barstow, Calif., last month but ran short of time and money, Ruhkick said.

"We needed about $15,000," he said.

So they had to leave the Tortoise at home and settle for flying south to watch the race.

"It was honor just to be invited," he said, noting that the field of 25 qualifying entrants had been winnowed down from a list of about 150.

The team now has its sights on a similar event in September, also in California, sponsored by the International Robot Racing Federation.

"We're still in the game," Ruhkick said. "And we're doing it on a shoestring budget."

The Arctic Tortoise is a radically converted 1992 Jeep Cherokee with a 4.0-liter, 171-horsepower engine and a hefty load of sophisticated electronics on board. The UAF team has been testing the Tortoise at the university's Poker Flats Research Range north of Fairbanks.

It is capable of speeds up to 50 mph, but speed is not the primary objective, Ruhkick said.

"You can go a million miles an hour, but if you don't get there, you don't win," he said.

In running the course, the vehicles used desert property managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management. It included well-traveled utility roads, blind turns, severe elevation changes, hairpin turns and sheer drops along the way.

In all, 15 teams made it to the challenge March 13. Nobody won, and the two top contenders only covered seven miles before becoming disabled, according to unofficial results posted by DARPA on the Internet.

The race course was not disclosed to participants until about three hours before the start, when they were given a CD with coordinates for approximately 2,000 waypoints along the way.

The strongest showing was by the "Red Team" from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa. The team was going along fine until they started running into things, Ruhkick said.

"They were using a Hummer. They mowed over two 4-by-4 wooden fence posts, before they ran into a steel one," he said. "That ultimately ended their steering capability and got them off the road."

The performance caused observers to review the race rules, one of which prohibits the use of "brute force" to knock over obstacles, he said.

A team named SciAutonics II also covered seven miles before making the disabled list. Ruhkick said they were using a modified golf cart type vehicle that was built in Israel for a California team seeking military contracts with that country.

One other contender, Team DAD, covered six miles of territory. Ruhkick said he was impressed that they used only computerized cameras for the effort and not a suite of other devices.

"That was their only sensor, besides GPS" - Global Positioning System, he said. "None of us thought they could do that with the technology available today, but they demonstrated that they may succeed."

There are no joysticks or radio controls between teams and the vehicles. It's all done with robotic sensing systems working together, he said.

He said the Tortoise uses sonar, radar, laser rangefinders and GPS to navigate. Engineers hope to add vision sensors this year.

"We can operate in joystick mode, but it's basically just turn it on, let it go and keep your fingers crossed," he quipped.

Ruhkick is more serious about pursuing the DARPA Challenge when is held again in another 16 to 18 months. Revised plans for the race raise the prize from $1 million to $2 million for the winner, but he said that's just a "drop in the bucket," compared to the potential for snagging lucrative military contracts.

The Pentagon wants to convert many of its vehicles to be autonomous within the next decade, and the Tortoise will be in the running if enough financial and in-kind support for the project is available, he said.

Most of the support so far has come from private and corporate contributors, and the budget for the coming years is roughly $100,000.

"Other teams are spending millions," he said.

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