No Drivers Wanted


By Anne Burke

Published Jan 1, 2006 12:00 AM


With research into autonomous war vehicles moving at a sluggish pace, DARPA cast a wider net. In January 2003, the agency put out a call to roboticists, university researchers, artificial intelligence developers, video-game makers, garage tinkerers and pipe dreamers to enter the DARPA Grand Challenge in March 2004. The bot that most quickly completed a 142-mile course within 10 hours, from Barstow, Calif., to Las Vegas, would win $1 million.

Mason, an ’03 Caltech Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, heard about the Grand Challenge at his job at the RAND Corporation, where he researches unmanned ground and aerial vehicles. In his spare time, Mason is a quiz bowler, sometime actor, and blogger who enjoys pondering brain teasers like, “If I get in a helicopter and go straight up and just hover there for 12 hours, will Icome down on the other side of the world?” In 2002, Mason won $52,000 on Jeopardy! While his wife, Maribeth, had in mind a down payment on a house, she did not begrudge her husband instead spending the money on a half-ton Ford 150 pickup truck for the Grand Challenge. To help roboticize the truck Mason turned to Radford, his classmate at Caltech and also a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. Working at the time for a Santa Ana company called Indigita Corporation, Radford was a crackerjack at developing and analyzing the computer algorithms that control and coordinate robotic motion.

Left to right: Golem 2, followed by her chase vehicle, kicks up dirt during the race;
Golem 2 passes by a viewing stand.

In order for a robot to drive on its own, it needs to see. To give their truck eyes, Mason and Radford, now calling themselves the Golem Group, thought of Jason Meltzer, whom they had known at Caltech. Meltzer, from Long Island, N.Y., had done his undergraduate work at Caltech but for his doctoral studies, he came to UCLA to work under Soatto in the Vision Lab, which was quickly establishing itself as one of the best in the country.

The Italian-born Soatto has Caltech credentials himself, having done his Ph.D. there. In 2000, after teaching at Washington University and Harvard, Soatto came to UCLA and launched the Vision Lab. Aided by about 13 students and four postdocs, Soatto investigates a field called dynamic vision, which involves a computer’s ability to take visual data about a changing environment and apply it to the performance of tasks. Soatto sees dynamic vision as one of technology’s most exciting frontiers, with the potential to improve nearly every aspect of our lives. Already, dynamic vision is used in Japanese automobiles to detect a pedestrian stepping off a sidewalk, and by freightliner trucks to sound an alarm when a driver starts to nod off. “Think of everything you do with your eyes and then think of a machine being able to do that,” Soatto says. “The potential impact is humongous!”

Meltzer mentioned the Golem Group to Eagle Jones, a fellow Caltech grad who had also come to UCLA to pursue a Ph.D. under Soatto. Raised in Oregon and California, Jones, a rangy 6-foot-5, early on developed a gargantuan appetite for life. While still in high school, he programmed a computer game that enjoyed modest commercial success. At Caltech, he was an NCAA All-American in water polo, set two swimming records that stand today, and earned a pilot’s license. After coming to UCLA, he completed his first Ironman event.

In the way that one might put together a team for a bank heist, Mason and Radford rounded up another dozen or so friends and friends of friends. Maribeth Mason recruited Jim Swenson, Brent Morgan and Jerry Fuller from The Aerospace Corporation, where she works. Robb Walters and Deepak Kumar joined from Caltech, where they are pursuing Ph.D.s. Josh Arensberg signed up from the film industry. Also on board were Radford’s boss at Indigita, Bill Caldwell, and Caldwell’s son, David. Having reached critical mass, what the Golem Group needed was backing from a big university.

Jones approached Soatto, whose answer was an unequivocal no. The Grand Challenge, Soatto warned, was more like Mission Impossible. The course was too long and the time limit too restrictive. “Nobody was going to be able to make it under the conditions DARPA set out,” he said.


Soatto called it right. None of the 15 bots completed even 10 miles in the first race in 2004. The top finisher was Carnegie Mellon University, whose Humvee veered off course at 7.4 miles, despite the best efforts by CMU’s venerated roboticist, William ” Whittaker. Other bots crashed, flipped or became disoriented and wandered off course. Though the next day’s headlines rang of mockery, the media found an inspirational, little-guy story in the Golem Group’s truck. With no big sponsors and operating only on GPS, Golem 1 completed 5.2 miles for a fourth-place finish. Even the team was shocked. “We were, by all accounts, the lowest budget team there and sort of the only true garage team,” Jones recalled. “There were just no expectations for us.”

Watching the race on the Internet from his Pasadena home, Soatto was “ecstatic.” When the team announced they would return for the 2005 Grand Challenge, Soatto was in, as was Assistant Professor Emilio Frazzoli, a roboticist who specializes in unmanned aircraft and would write the navigational software for Golem 2. The two professors contributed the bulk of their discretionary funds to the effort. Combined with money from the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science and Vice Chancellor for Research Roberto Peccei, the Golem Group/UCLA, as the team was officially known, had a war chest of $260,000 cash. The team invited all comers to help out. Kerry Connor ’03 and Brian Fulkerson, another Ph.D. student from the Vision Lab, signed on.

Golem 2 would rely on a far more sophisticated array of visual sensors than its predecessor. Attached to a metal frame over the front grille were five so-called LADAR sensors from the German manufacturer SICK. Each scanned a field of 90 or 180 degrees using a pulsed laser beam that would reflect back to the sensor if it collided with an object. A small camera from the Israeli company MobilEye would find the edges of the road from its mount on the hood. While some of the 23 entries in the 2005 Grand Challenge carried computer systems the size of refrigerators, Golem 2 relied on a single laptop computer strapped with bungee cords to the front seat of the Dodge Ram.



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