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Carnegie Mellon University Team Wins Pentagon-sponsored Robot Race


Members of a Carnegie Mellon University-based team of engineers and their tricked-out, driverless sport utility vehicle won $2 million (euro1.4 million) for their victory in a Pentagon-sponsored robot race in the Southern California desert, race officials announced.

Tartan Racing’s “Boss” turned in the top performance Saturday as it navigated itself through an urban-style obstacle course at a former Air Force base set up by race organizers from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

Guided by cameras, lasers and a sophisticated on-board computer, the team’s sport utility vehicle merged with moving cars some piloted by stunt drivers navigated traffic circles and avoided obstacles at an average speed of 14 mph (23 kph), DARPA Urban Challenge program manager Norman Whitaker said Sunday.

“They did everything right: followed all the speed laws, stopped at the intersections,” Whitaker said. “It was really a phenomenal performance.”

A team from Stanford University won the $1 million (euro690,000) second-place prize by designing a robotic vehicle that completed the course at a 13 mph (21 kph kilometer) average, while engineers from Virginia Tech received $500,000 (euro345,000) for finishing third with a souped-up SUV that finished the course at 12 mph (19 kph), Whitaker said.

The robot rumble was held at the old George Air Force Base east of Los Angeles that was converted into a 60-mile (100-kilometer) obstacle course.

The urban road race was the third robotic competition bankrolled by DARPA, which faces a congressional deadline to have one-third of its military ground combat vehicles unmanned by 2015.

Throngs of spectators turned out to cheer on the driverless vehicles as they zipped through a mock city. Vehicles were judged by their ability to safely complete the course within six hours while following all traffic laws.

The 11 finalists that made it to Saturday’s race were chosen from a field of 35 teams after a grueling, weeklong qualifying round. Six of the finalists crossed the finish line, but not everything went smoothly: one team was eliminated after nearly charging into the former base’s commissary building; another team’s vehicle mysteriously pulled into a house’s carport and parked itself.

But there were no collisions, save a minor bumper tap that occurred when Cornell’s vehicle started moving as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s car attempted to pass it.

DARPA’s inaugural race through the Mojave Desert in 2004 was a flop when the self-driving robots broke down. Five autonomous vehicles navigated a desert course in an encore in 2005, but only Stanford took home the $2 million (euro1.4 million) prize.

This year’s winners will now focus on the Google Lunar X Prize, in which the Internet search company will award $20 million (euro14 million) to the first team to land an automated rover on the moon that can send back high definition images and video, said team leader Red Whittaker, a Carnegie Mellon professor of robotics.

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