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CMU's DARPA Urban Grand Challenge win a decade ago launched many careers

Aaron Aupperlee
| Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017, 5:06 p.m.
Boss, Carnegie Mellon University's entry into the 2007 DARPA Urban Grand Challenge, crosses the finish line at George Air Force Base in Victorville, California. CMU's Tartan Racing won the challenge and a $2-million prize. (Photo from Carnegie Mellon University)
General Motors
Boss, Carnegie Mellon University's entry into the 2007 DARPA Urban Grand Challenge, crosses the finish line at George Air Force Base in Victorville, California. CMU's Tartan Racing won the challenge and a $2-million prize. (Photo from Carnegie Mellon University)
Tartan Racing team members at work on Boss before the DARPA Urban Grand Challenge in 2007. (Photo from Carnegie Mellon University)
General Motors
Tartan Racing team members at work on Boss before the DARPA Urban Grand Challenge in 2007. (Photo from Carnegie Mellon University)

A poster caught Kevin Peterson's eye.

Stuck to a wall inside Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, the poster had on it a dune buggy with lasers flying through the desert.

"A lot of us saw that and thought this is what we have to do," Peterson said. "It just had this coolness to it."

That was 2003 when CMU robotics professor Red Whittaker was recruiting a team for the first DARPA Grand Challenge, a robot car race across the California desert.

Four years later — after traveling the farthest in that first Grand Challenge in 2004 and placing heartbreaking second and third place in the 2005 challenge — Whittaker led Tartan Racing, a team of CMU students, faculty and staff, engineers from General Motors, Caterpillar to victory and the $2-million prize in the 2007 Urban Grand Challenge.

"It was kind of a galvanizing project," said Peterson, who was one of only a few people to compete on all three challenges. "Before the challenges there was no self-driving car, and after there were."

CMU is marking the 10-year anniversary of Tartan Racing's win this weekend with a series of panels, discussions and speeches about autonomy. Team members, some now at rival companies in the new race to build self-driving cars, will reunite.

"It was going after that impossible," said Michele Gittleman, another member of all three Grand Challenge teams. "To do something objectively great to do something bigger than you and to be a part of it."

The Urban Grand Challenge was the third robot race sponsored by the military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. In the first two races, teams tried to travel from Barstow, Calif., to Primm, Nev., across the Mojave Desert. The third race, the Urban Grand Challenge, took place at George Air Force Base in Victorville, Calif. The autonomous vehicles had to navigate simulated city streets complete with traffic signals, lane markers and other cars.

CMU's Red Team entered Sandstorm, an autonomous Hummer in the 2004 challenge. In 2005, Red Team showed up with an improved Sandstorm and H1ghlander, a second Hummer. For the 2007 race, Red Team morphed into Tartan Racing and brought Boss, a Chevy Tahoe that could drive itself.

Sandstorm, center, finished second, and H1ghlander, right, finished third in the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. Stanley, left, from Stanford University won. | Photo from Carnegie Mellon University

The cool factor never wore off for Peterson, who went from the Grand Challenge teams to Astrobotic to work on autonomous lunar rovers and is now a co-founder of Marble, a San Francisco-based startup working on autonomous delivery vehicles.

The Grand Challenges, and especially the 2007 Urban Grand Challenge, launched its participants on career trajectories that would see them reshaping the way we think about transportation, whether around town, underground in a mine or on a farm or in outer space.

The Tartan Racing roster from the 2007 Urban Grand Challenge reads like a "who's who" in robotics, autonomy and self-driving. Names like Chris Urmson, who worked for Google's self-driving car project before starting his company Aurora Innovation, and Bryan Salesky, whose Pittsburgh-based company, Argo AI, got a $1 billion investment from Ford, stand out.

Josh Anhalt and Tony Stentz were on the team. They both work in Uber's Advanced Technology Group in Pittsburgh. Drew Bagnell, another Tartan Racing alum, worked at Uber, then left to join Urmson as a co-founder of Aurora.

There are people like Todd Shupe at General Motors and Josh Struble, who has been working on autonomous machines at Caterpillar since the first challenges in the early 2000s.

Nick Miller works at SpaceX on the Dragon capsule. Others work at Apple, Daimler and several startups. Many stayed at CMU as professors and continued their research.

"I'm darn proud of all of them," Whittaker said.

Tartan Racing celebrates their victory in the 2007 DARPA Urban Grand Challenge. | Photo from Carnegie Mellon University

Whittaker drilled into the teams that it wasn't just about winning the race. The teams knew autonomous driving would change agriculture, mining, logistics and more. He drilled that attitude into the team, Peterson said. For the team, solving autonomous driving was a problem worth solving.

And the team, although scattered, is still working on problems worth solving: making space travel less expensive, reducing car crash fatalities and automating farm and mining equipment to produce more food and reduce the hazards.

"We're working on problems that fundamentally transform people's lives," Peterson said.

Boss navigating traffic during the 2007 DARPA Urban Grand Challenge. | Photo from Carnegie Mellon University

Whittaker said he sees it all around him. Driving down Fifth Avenue in Oakland this week, Whittaker passed a couple of self-driving Uber SUVs. Many of his former students work at Uber. Several former team members got together to start Uber's Advanced Technology Group in Pittsburgh. Uber came to Pittsburgh in a large part because of the work Whittaker's teams did in the three challenges.

"It lifts me up," Whittaker said as he passed an Uber. "The future is in good hands."

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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