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CMU's robotic SUV shifts into high gear

| Friday, Aug. 10, 2007

And then there were 36.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said Thursday that Carnegie Mellon University's Tartan Racing team and 35 other teams worldwide advanced to semifinals in a secretive government-sponsored competition to help spur development of robotic vehicles to aid armed forces.

"Boss," Carnegie Mellon's robotic Chevy Tahoe, will head for the former George Air Force Base in Victorville, Calif. -- which DARPA announced yesterday as the site of the Urban Challenge competition for awards totalling $3.5 million.

"All 36 teams that got the good news today are very capable," said William "Red" Whittaker, Tartan Racing team leader and Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute professor. "The teams had to be very successful and perform very well to advance to qualifiers."

On Oct. 26, the teams -- whittled from an original 89 -- will compete for 20 spots in the final competition Nov. 3. To win the top prize, the robotic vehicles have to safely conduct a simulated battlefield supply mission on a 60-mile course, while obeying California traffic laws and avoiding other vehicles. They must do so in less than six hours.

Carnegie Mellon robotic vehicles finished second and third in DARPA's 2005 Grand Challenge, a 132-mile race across the Mojave Desert. Stanford University's "Stanley" came in first.

In a comment that appeared to be aimed at the two robotic powerhouses -- which are touted in robotics circles as favorites in the Urban Challenge -- DARPA director Tony Tether made clear that neither Carnegie Mellon nor Stanford were top finishers among the 36 semifinalists.

"Five teams completed the 2005 Grand Challenge ... (but) only one of them was rated in the top five of this 36," Tether said, adding that the lone repeat is Team Gray, formed by a Louisiana insurance company. "The other four were evaluated significantly further back."

That doesn't dampen Carnegie Mellon's spirits, said Chris Urmson, Tartan Racing director of technology.

"It's just an indication of how big the competition is and how great the teams are," Urmson said. "We're looking forward to going head-to-head with these guys."

Since the qualifying round in June, Boss has become a much better robotic driver. Maneuvers it made at 15 mph two months ago can now be made at 30 mph. It can park itself and yield at intersections, not just stop, Urmson said.

Still, a win isn't guaranteed for any team, Whittaker said.

"It's a sure bet that the Urban Challenge will be won," Whittaker said. "The much bigger question is whether it can be won in 2007."

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