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CMU Readies Robot Vechicle
By Robotics Trends Staff - Filed Sep 12, 2004
More Security and Defense stories
Carnegie Mellon University’s Red Team took possession of a shiny new H1 Hummer yesterday and immediately began considering what they could strip off the hulking sport utility vehicle, beginning with its name.

“Whatever it was when it came through the door, it’s not an H1 anymore,” declared William “Red” Whittaker, the Carnegie Mellon roboticist who heads his namesake racing team. From now on, call it Highlander or, as the team prefers to spell it, “H1ghlander.”

The name is only the first of the changes the vehicle will undergo as Whittaker’s cohorts rapidly turn it into a robotic racing vehicle in preparation for the $2 million, winner-take-all DARPA Grand Challenge in the Mojave Desert on Oct. 8, 2005. It’s the first of two H1s donated by Hummer maker AM General.

The steering column will soon be gone, replaced by a hydro-electric steering system made by Caterpillar, a team sponsor. Seats will give way to shock-isolated computers, an auxiliary power generator will be packed into the cargo area and a batwing-shaped sensor pod will be bolted to the roof.

It’s slated to be driving autonomously by Dec. 10.

Highlander will be the running mate of Sandstorm, a heavily modified military Humvee that the Red Team raced in the first Grand Challenge in March near Barstow, Calif. Sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the challenge requires robotic vehicles to negotiate a 175-mile desert course in 10 hours or less without human guidance or intervention.

DARPA hopes the $2 million challenge will trigger innovation in unmanned ground vehicles, which the Pentagon has identified as a key technology it will use on and off the battlefield within the next decade. No vehicle completed the first challenge, though Sandstorm went farthest and fastest, completing 7.4 miles at an average of speed of 15 miles an hour.

At a daylong team meeting yesterday, Whittaker said he expects several teams will complete the course at next year’s challenge.

“We gotta go faster” if the Red Team entrants hope to win the prize. He said Highlander and Sandstorm will have to reach peak speeds of more than 60 mph ---- almost twice as fast as Sandstorm’s peak speed of 36 mph ---- and average perhaps 30 mph if they are to win.

At least one other team, the University of Maryland, will be racing Hummers, he noted, and the field is generally expected to be more competitive next time. More than 550 people from seven countries attended a DARPA Participants Conference last month.

Having AM General on board as a sponsor this year will be a big advantage, Whittaker said. In addition to the red H1 that arrived yesterday, a second H1 will soon be available as a replacement vehicle if something should happen to Highlander, or to provide an early start on a vehicle for the third DARPA Grand Challenge.

Carnegie Mellon students enrolled in Whittaker’s mobile robotics course this fall will be developing new race technology; students began to divvy up assignments yesterday. Also, Caterpillar will have one of its engineers working full time on the team until race day, joining a Boeing engineer who was with the team a year ago.

Whittaker laid out an ambitious development and testing program for the 393 days remaining until the race.

Boeing’s Phil Koon noted that more than 150 days of testing are planned, far more than was possible with Sandstorm.

“We tested more than anyone else last time, but it wasn’t enough to win the race,” he said.

Copyright 2004 P.G. Publishing Co.

Copyright © 2002 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

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