No Drivers Wanted
By Anne Burke
Published Jan 1, 2006 12:00 AM
Copyright ©2006 Amanda Friedman
Photos, charts, video, audio, background stories.
Golem 2, a Dodge Ram pickup truck and UCLA's entry in the Pentagon's robotic-vehicle race, is tearing through the Mojave Desert like a thing possessed. Bam! She mows down a yucca tree. Whoa! She bounds into the air. The front grille grabs a creosote bush. Rocks ping against her sides. The taillights spring off and the tailgate, hanging by a cable, flails wildly.
Ed Robinson, a seasoned off-road racer from Sacramento, approaches from behind in a chase vehicle. Riding shotgun, his thumb and index finger lightly grasping an emergency-stop switch, is Brian Hearing, who works for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the race’s sponsor. Bouncing in the back seat, manning the radios, is Greg Duckworth, who also works at DARPA. Even with his many years off-road driving, Robinson is a little weirded out. “Have you ever followed a vehicle with nobody driving it?” he asks.
HIGH STAKES IN THE HIGH DESERT
Richard Mason, Jim Radford, Eagle Jones, Jason Meltzer and a dozen others who have spent the last three years preparing for this day are about 10 miles west in Primm, the Nevada gambling town that straddles Interstate 15 just over the state line. The DARPA Grand Challenge started here at 6:40 a.m. on Oct. 8, when the first of 23 “bots” lumbered across the start line in pursuit of $2 million in prize money and the glory of winning a race that had captured the world’s imagination.
Golem 2 was seventh out of the gate at 7:10 a.m., right behind “Dad, Are We There Yet?,” a modified Toyota Tundra designed by Morgan Hill, Calif., scientists, and ahead of “Spider,” a military, light-strike vehicle from Cornell University. It’s now 8:20 a.m. and most of the Golem Group, as these UCLA-based roboticists call themselves, are sitting around a table in the spectator’s tent, watching with gathering confidence a big scoreboard that shows Golem 2’s progress as a horizontal bar creeping rightward. There is no camera feed, so no one knows the first thing about the truck’s wild romp. As far as they know, this four-wheeled robot that they have loved, cursed and sweated over has been behaving exactly as they hoped.
Late the previous night, Mason and Radford, the team’s leaders, had decided to pursue a somewhat risky “throttle up” strategy. The Grand Challenge was not a race in the pedal-to-the-metal, NASCAR sense. At a qualifying event at Fontana Speedway the previous week, 35 mph was considered double fast. Nevertheless, Mason and Radford had come to believe that the race would go to the swift.
The exact route of the Grand Challenge was kept secret until 4:10 a.m. on race day, when DARPA officials handed each team a CD containing global positioning system waypoints. These latitude and longitude markers act like bread crumbs to guide the bots along the 131.6-mile course. With the exception of the treacherous Beer Bottle Pass through the mountains, the course was mostly a bunch of straight lines between Primm and Jean, about 12 miles north on I-15. Huddled over a laptop computer in the aging RV that was command central for the Golem Group/UCLA, Mason and Radford, unshaven and fueled by Coca Cola, made a critical decision: Once Golem 2 is out of the chute and gets her bearings, she would be under orders to go 50 mph.
DIVINE INSPIRATION FOR A ROBOT RACE
The name Golem comes from Jewish legend. In 16th-century Germany, God commanded a rabbi to fashion out of clay an automaton, or golem, that would protect Israel against her enemies. As it happened, this golem could see and understand its environment in a robot- like way, and so performed good deeds for the Jews. In 2000, the U.S. Congress, looking to save American lives in war zones, passed a law ordering that one-third of all ground combat vehicles be unmanned by 2015. As any insomniac who has watched the TV infomercial for the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner can attest, robots left the purview of science fiction a long time ago. Robots, some partly autonomous and others remote-controlled, are disabling bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, exploring the surface of Mars, probing the seabed around Japan, and sucking up cat hair from your neighbor’s carpet.
But building a totally self-operating vehicle that could traverse difficult terrain in wartime had confounded even the nation’s top defense contractors. The problem, explains Stefano Soatto, a computer science professor who runs the UCLA Vision Lab and led the UCLA branch of the Golem Group, is far more difficult than the public is given to understand. (If it were easy, we’d all be reading the paper while stuck on the 405.) An autonomous vehicle must be capable of deciding future action based on sensory data drawn from an unfamiliar and changing environment.
Say you’re driving on Interstate 5 and a tumbleweed blows into your lane. Most of us would correctly conclude that the tumbleweed poses little danger. But say the tumbleweed is in the path of a robotic vehicle equipped with a laser beam that sweeps a 90-degree arc. If the beam bounced against a branch, it would alert the robot to trouble ahead. But if the beam passed through spaces in the tumbleweed, it might send the all-clear signal. Even for humans, Soatto notes, processing sensory information is so difficult that “half the brain is devoted to this task.”