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Last Updated: Sunday, 9 October 2005, 23:29 GMT 00:29 UK
Robotic racers achieve milestone
By Chris Vallance
BBC News in Nevada

Sebastian Thrun celebrates his robot car crossing the finish line first at the Darpa Grand Challenge in Nevada
The team from Stanford have been celebrating their win
A team from Stanford University's School of Engineering has made motoring history, winning a $2m (1.14m) prize in the process.

Its car, a Volkswagen Touareg nicknamed "Stanley", has become the first self-navigating vehicle to successfully complete the gruelling 131.6 mile (211km) cross-country Darpa Grand Challenge, a race for autonomous robot vehicles held in Nevada's Mojave desert.

Sebastian Thrun, leader of the winning team, predicted that one day all cars would be able to drive themselves.

But the real prize could be fewer US casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 2005 Grand Challenge - the world's only driver-less car race - was organised by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or Darpa, part of the US Department of Defense.

The military's need for vehicles which can drive themselves is most pressing in Iraq, where US logistical and military convoys come under frequent attack by insurgents.

Highlander at the DARPA Grand Challenge
If we can take a logistics vehicle and drive it across an environment like that in Iraq and save lives that's worth a lot of technology investment
Greg Young, ENSCO

Drivers lucky enough to survive blasts from Improvised Explosive Devices still face the risk of being taken hostage by insurgents.

As Greg Young of Team Ensco said: "If we can take a logistics vehicle and drive it across an environment like that in Iraq and save lives, that's worth a lot of technology investment."

In fact, Congress has mandated that one third of the US military's ground vehicles must be able to operate autonomously by 2015.

If that sounds unrealistic, consider the important military role played by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Although remote-controlled from bases all over the globe, UAVs like The Predator possess a high degree of autonomy necessary because of the time-lag in relaying commands.

One group, Team Terramax, is particularly interested in the military application of this technology. Their vehicle, a giant six-wheeled truck is derived from a logistical support vehicle already in use by the American military.

The base military vehicle for the Terramax is an MTVR (or medium tactical vehicle replacement). Some 6,000 of these have been produced and more than 1,600 are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The idea behind Terramax is to enable the US military to run transport convoys with far fewer troops.

Gary Schmiedel of Team Terramax told BBC News that using the kind of technology in Terramax "we can get the same amount of material moved but have fewer soldiers in harm's way."

Although fully robotic convoys are some way off, Mr Schmiedel believes that "leader-follower" technologies developed in the Darpa challenge could mean that a substantial number of vehicles in a convoy operated without human drivers.

Boulders, cliffs

But flying in the open skies is much easier than navigating desert littered with boulders and cliffs and man-made obstacles including tunnels and tank-traps.

The principal challenge faced by the race's 23 competitors was teaching the robot-cars to spot obstructions and calculate a route round them fast enough to let the cars travel above the minimum competitive speed of 15mph (24km/h).

Image of finalist Terramax
Finalist Terramax is a monster of a driverless truck
Another technical conundrum was how to ensure the vehicles did not "imagine" obstacles where none exist.

It added up to a formidable challenge.

Last year, all the competitors failed to complete the course, while the best distance was a mere 7.4 miles.

This year there was a lot more sponsorship and a lot more money behind teams.

Quiz investor

Away from well-funded teams based out of universities or large engineering firms, the finalists were still a splendidly eclectic bunch.

The Golem Group, returning for a second attempt and now partnered with UCLA, began after team founder Richard Mason won $50,000 (28,400) on the US Quiz show Jeopardy.

He decided to invest his winnings in entering the Grand Challenge. After a creditable showing last year they are back with their new heavy-weight sponsor.

Image of finalist SciAutonics vehicle
SciAutonics is one of the finalists which came through the heats

Axion, racing from San Diego, live up to the surfer-dude image of their home state.

Their vehicle is the only one adorned with Snoopdogg style "spinner" hubcaps.

It also boasts a couple of surf boards on the roof-rack. A fittingly colourful vehicle for a team that grew out of working on killer-bots for the US version of the hit TV show Robot Wars.

A creditable mention must go to Blue Team and Ghostrider.

They did not quite make the final but then they did choose to build an autonomous motor-bike.

It certainly won whatever prizes were going for "coolness".

It was a miracle of balance and even demonstrated a nifty ability to get back up after a tumble but it was knocked out in the semi-final.

Examined from a military perspective, $2m (1.14m) is a small price to pay for inspiring so much cutting-edge research, but many competitors are keen to stress the possible peaceful applications of this technology.

Scott Wilson, of the Cajunbot team from the University of Louisiana, at Lafayette, spent days in a boat helping to rescue people from flooded areas of New Orleans.

He saw at first hand how fears over safety slowed and in some cases halted rescue work. With driver-less vehicles, rescue might have come sooner.

Hear interviews with the team that made the car

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