Thursday, April 12, 2007


The Great Robot Race

Last night, I watched The Great Robot Race, a NOVA documentary about the DARPA "Grand Challenge." The challenge was to build a robot vehicle that could independently traverse a rugged +130-mile course in the Mojave Desert. The prize was $2 million for the design team of the fastest vehicle to finish. As it turns out, the contest becomes an accidental metaphor for the role of the US in the global community.

Spoiler warning: Ending details follow.

You can watch entire documentary online here.

In 2004, the first year of the contest, no vehicle made it more than 7 miles before being disabled. But the vehicle that got the furthest was "Sandstorm," a 1986 Humvee, (pictured on the DVD cover, above right) fielded by the Red Team of Carnegie-Mellon University.

In 2005, the Red Team returns with Sandstorm and a 1999 Hummer H1 dubbed "H1ghlander." The Red Team is led by Dr. William "Red" Whittaker, a macho ex-Marine. At one point in the film, Red gruffly tells his troops, "You are either thoroughly rested, 200 percent effectiveness, or you got some work to do." The team's main sponsor is Caterpillar (or CaterKiller as it's known in the Palestinian solidarity movement). The Red Team is, by far, the largest with more than a hundred members and a budget in the millions of dollars. The beefy vehicles are loaded with beefed up hardware, including custom-built roof-mounted, gimballed lasers.

Because it finishes first in the timed obstacle course qualification runs, H1ghlander is given the "pole position"--first place in the staggered race start. Behind H1ghlander is a blue Volkswagen Touareg named "Stanley." It is the entry of a new team from Stanford University and led by Dr. Sebastian Thrun, a soft-spoken and decidedly less-than-macho German native. The Stanford team's color is blue and the stock Touareg comes from Volkswagen with minimal modification--shift, brake, and steering actuators. In contrast with the Red Team, the Stanford team's approach is software-intensive and using mostly off-the-shelf hardware.

By now, you've probably guessed which team wins. Stanley beats H1ghlander by 21 minutes and a telling moment in the film is watching the handful of blue-shirted Stanley team members cheer as, 102 miles into the race, Stanley overtakes H1ghlander with the multitudes of the red-shirted Red Team silently and dejectedly looking on.

I'll close with the post-race remarks of Thrun and Whittaker:
SEBASTIAN THRUN: It was just amazing to see this community of people. That community succeeded today. Behind me, there are three robots that made it all the way through the desert, and all three of them did the unthinkable. It's such a fantastic success for this community, I think we all win.

RED WHITTAKER: The engine punked on us. The only thing that was short was not having a top-end speed on the gas pedal. Except for that, we're in like a charm. [Actually, the fancy gimballed laser on H1ghlander also "punks" on them well before the end of the race--VFPDissident]
You can watch the entire documentary online here.

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