Carnegie Mellon's Red Team Sandstorm Robot Sets Distance Record in DARPA Grand Challenge

Byron SpiceMonday, March 15, 2004

BARSTOW, Calif.-Sandstorm, the autonomous robot vehicle developed by Carnegie Mellon University's Red Team to compete in the DARPA Grand Challenge, traveled 7.4 miles into the desert near Barstow, Calif., setting a record for distance before hanging up on a trail in the mountains. It was one of 15 robotic vehicles given the okay by DARPA to attempt to traverse a 142-mile course from Barstow to Primm, Nevada for a $1 million prize.

Sandstorm was coming off of a switchback when it high-centered on the berm of a road. The collision broke the vehicle's front pair of half shafts and shredded both front tires as it straddled the berm. Fuel began leaking from the vehicle as well.

"We were wounded from the start," said Red Team leader, Carnegie Mellon robotics professor William L. "Red" Whittaker. He noted that Sandstorm's navigation system had never fully recovered from a spill the vehicle took the previous week during a practice run at the Nevada Automotive Test Center (NATC).

"Sandstorm rolled a week ago. We rebuilt it electromechanically, but it's not possible in a few hours of testing and tuning to come back one hundred percent," he said.

At the NATC test site in Nevada, Sandstorm rolled over as it maneuvered a turn, destroying many key sensors and other equipment, which the team quickly rebuilt and replaced. Despite the accident, Sandstorm went on to successfully complete two qualification inspection and demonstration (QID) runs at the California Speedway before the run at Barstow.

During the Barstow run, Whittaker said he was especially pleased with the performance of the mapping system, which gave Sandstorm the information it needed to find its way through the desert. "We had that one special moment when we achieved the perfect drive," he said. "The very important thing about robots is not to get too elated when they drive and not too down when they don't," Whittaker said. In the hours since the race, the team has replaced the half-shafts and tires, and the vehicle is up and running. The navigation system is fully operational. "We could run again tomorrow," Whittaker said.

The Sandstorm robot is the result of more than a year-long collaboration between Carnegie Mellon researchers, students and more than 35 corporate sponsors.

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For more information about the Red Team, see:
For more information about the DARPA Challenge, see:

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Byron Spice | 412-268-9068 |