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Robot car scoops US$2-million prize

October 10, 2005 By Mark Peplow This article courtesy of Nature News.

Stanley wins Grand Challenge race.

A driverless car called Stanley has bagged $2 million for its creators after winning a 210-kilometre race through the Nevada desert.

The Grand Challenge event was organized by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which runs research projects with military applications for the US government. The agency hopes that autonomous vehicles like Stanley will one day ferry supplies through battlefields without having to risk a driver's life (see ' Robots rev up for Grand Challenge') .

Twenty-three competing vehicles had a maximum of ten hours to complete the course, but Stanley, built by a team of engineers from Stanford University, California, completed the trek through the rugged Nevada desert in just 6 hours and 54 minutes.

The car is a souped-up Volkswagen Touareg, fitted with a global positioning system, a radar system to map the terrain and laser range-finders to spot obstacles. It also has a pair of stereo-vision cameras, and carries six computers to interpret all the data, allowing Stanley to drive itself safely across the desert without any human assistance at an average speed of 30 kilometres per hour.

"I think that within 50 years, maybe even 30, we will see this new technology in our everyday lives," predicts the Stanford team's leader Sebastian Thrun. Since thousands die in automobile accidents every year, "many lives will be saved with the future of autonomous vehicles," he says.

Five finishers

The race was a vast improvement on last year's competition, in which no robot made it further than 12 kilometres. This year's competition saw 21 of the 23 contenders do better than last year's best shot: five vehicles completed the course, four of them within the time limit.

Two teams from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, watched their converted military vehicles, Sandstorm and H1lander, storm home 10 and 20 minutes after Stanley. Then GrayBot, sponsored by the Gray Insurance Company of Metairie, Louisiana, rolled past the finish line with a time of 7 hours and 30 minutes.

The last vehicle to finish the course was the mighty TerraMax, a truck from Ohio State University in Columbus that took 12 hours and 51 minutes to complete the race.

DARPA says that after this year's success, they are unlikely to hold a similar event in 2006. The agency's director, Tony Tether, points out that their aim was to accelerate the development of these technologies to a stage at which others could develop them into viable applications for the military. "We have completed our mission here," he says, "and look forward to watching these exciting technologies take off."


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