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We all know the basic facts about the DARPA Grand Challenge that pitted over 20 autonomous vehicles against each other and the elements out in the Mojave Desert last October. After watching the NOVA special The Great Robot Race on PBS last night the entire enterprise has taken on a whole new dynamic thanks to the excellent backstory provided by the program that reaches all the way back to the first DARPA Grand Challenge in 2004.

While The Great Robot Race features background on many contenders, including a “nobody” darkhorse team from New Orleans that finished fourth overall just weeks after Katrina blew through its hometown, the main push of the program centers around the two teams from Stanford and Carnegie Mellon. Sebastian Thrun heads the Stanford team, which is actually comprised of Carnegie Mellon defectors including Thrun himself, and they enter Stanley, a Touareg donated by Volkswagen, in the contest. Red Whittaker, an ex-marine turned college prof who presides over an army of graduate students and a pair of autonomous H1 Hummers named “H1ghlander” and “Sandstorm”, leads the Carnegie Mellon team.

Read on for more of the gritty details that led up to a showdown of these two teams in the desert.

As we already know, the affable Thrun and his smaller team from Stanford take the crown from Carnegie Mellon thanks to their focus on software and an innovative adaptive vision system that combines inputs from both laser sensors and video data. The picture above is a composite image of what Stanley actually “sees” out in the desert.

The two teams and their antithetical approaches were best illustrated when we’re shown what happens when officials finally release the course map to the contestants just hours before the race. It takes Thrun and his crew 29 minutes to load the 2,900 GPS way points into Stanley, leaving major decisions like speed to the expertly written software in Stanley’s computer brain. Whittaker, however, assembles his “Red Army” of grad students and attempts to plot and input every piece of available data into his two Hummers in order to take the load off of the onboard computers. Despite the extra effort on behalf of Whittaker’s team, Stanley could not be stopped and managed to make every right move on the 132-mile course.

Stanley's achievement is all the more impressive after watching The Great Robot Race, which should be airing multiple times over the next week and will be available to watch online in its entirety sometime today on NOVA's website. If you haven't already seen this show, you should. If you have seen it, let us know what you thought in the comments.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 9 Years Ago
      I agree with the above. Assembling a massive army of students to compute is inelegant, and is exactly the sort of thing a computer SHOULD be used for. Stanford has shown a good combination of mechanical and software solutions. Rock on!
      • 9 Years Ago
      Unfortunately I missed the PBS show - now hoping for a rerun. Did they also cover the earlier robot cars? I'd like to better understand the main advances of the past decade. For example, the site below says: "1995: UB Munich's fast Mercedes robot does 1000 autonomous miles on the highway - in traffic" "This famous S-class car of UBM autonomously drives 1678 km on public Autobahns from Munich to Denmark and back, at up to 180 km/h, automatically passing other cars": http://www.idsia.ch/~juergen/robotcars.html

      • 9 Years Ago
      It was a really good show, a good watch.
      • 9 Years Ago
      Really cool to watch but reminded me too much of Robocop. Private company with government contract see who in the private sector can do what they need. They buy them out (2M) then sell build a bunch of killing machines that later take over the world... oh wait now thats terminator.

      Good show though. I love the overtaking!
      • 9 Years Ago
      If anyone is interested in more videos of the DARPA event, CarTV covered it from pre-lim to finish and has a lot of great video footage showing how things work. CarTV predicted the winner would be Stanford and followed them closely - and they were correct in their prediction that Stanford had the best vehicle to win the event.

      Here is the link to their DARPA Grand Challenge video collection: http://www.cartv.com/content/research/channels/index.cfm/channel/cartv_video/action/showvideo/vid/e_0159/vscat/DARPA/vcat/Event

      • 9 Years Ago
      It's astonishing that SAE isn't involved in this. Aren't they supposed to be readying American engineers for real world experience.

      What a blown opportunity for the supposed "mobility leader."
      • 9 Years Ago
      I wish they had put more focus on the smaller teams, like "DAD" which looked like they would have finished well, if their laser device had stayed bolted together. Also, its unfortunate that the unknown New Orleans team didn't get much credit.

      It was a very close race, its amazing how the red team had to put so much extra effort into the GPS co-ordinates, and they were let down with some sort of mechanical failure.. they were set to win.
      • 9 Years Ago
      I enjoyed the show and recommend it to any car enthusiast. It had great drama, though by now we know the winner. Particularly touching was the guy who entered the little autonomous motorcycle. The most astonishing moment for me was when Stanley executed a clean pass for the lead on one of the Carnegie vehicles.

      I saw Stanley up close (though with doors closed, unfortunately) at the auto show recently and felt like I was standing next to one of the Apollo lunar landers.
      • 9 Years Ago
      Whoooo ~ Yeah CMU ! As Whittaker pointed out way back during the challenge that in the end, it's all Carnegie Mellon.
      • 9 Years Ago
      I led Team CIMAR to the finals in both GC04 and GC05. I thought the NOVA program was excellent and gave a very good impression of what it was all about. The only shortcoming is that it gives the impression that it was just between CMU and Stanford. In reality, its a lot more like NASCAR where out of any 10 races you get 7 different winners.

      These systems are truely awsome and if your really into the details of how they actually work check this out:

      • 9 Years Ago
      I agree with Danny. The CMU team was pretty pathetic programming thousands of extra way points into their system. Stanford followed more of the spirit of the competition and built an autonomous vehicle that was ... well... autonomous. Not just some overgrown GSP navigation system ala CMU.
      • 9 Years Ago
      What the Nova show did not focus on was the amount of test time that the teams did on their vehicles. Ensco and Gray team did lots of testing, as did all of the teams, but of course you can only pack so much into a one hour show.

      I would also like to see more of the aerial footage of the actual event, apparently DARPA has no aerial footage at all, they say that Nova had the only flying video crew.
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