CMU's robotic team basks in glow of victory


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Carnegie Mellon University's decisive victory Nov. 3 at the Urban Challenge can be reduced to basic NASCAR tactics.

"[Competitors] didn't accelerate like we did, and they didn't brake like we did," said Chris Urmson, director of technology for Carnegie Mellon's Tartan Racing.

The team transformed a Chevy Tahoe named "Boss" into a robotic phenomenon that defeated 10 competitors in a race held on a former air base in Victorville, Calif. The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Project Agency sponsored the race, which ran through a 52.8-mile cityscape course with intersections and two-way traffic.

Dr. Urmson's comments aside, winning wasn't as simple as speeding and braking.

Boss is loaded with technology. It's programmed with more than 100,000 lines of software code and an onboard bank of computers. It also has 27 high-tech sensors, global positioning systems and a slew of other technology that feed its computers with information.

Without human assistance, Boss cruised 54.3 miles, with one detour, through cityscape at an average speed of 14.7 miles an hour. It maneuvered through two-way traffic and completed various missions, including negotiating its way through busy and sometimes oddly shaped intersections. In the process, Boss executed 400 different driving tasks, without human input, Dr. Urmson said.

Boss completed the course in the fastest time and claimed the $2 million prize as the world's most accomplished robotic vehicle.

On Tuesday, Carnegie Mellon celebrated the historic victory with a party that featured the eagle trophy and oversized $2 million check.

Allegheny County and the city of Pittsburgh also passed resolutions declaring that day to be Tartan Racing Day in honor of the achievement.

Tartan Racing leader William "Red" Whittaker, the Fredkin research professor at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, said his team continues to receive congratulations and inquiries worldwide. For that reason, the team is planning a barnstorming tour to show off Boss, promote its breakthrough technology and celebrate the victory.

Carnegie Mellon President Jared Cohon said the Nov. 3 "victory in Victorville" marks "a very significant day in the history of this university."

"Not only did we win, but we won convincingly," he said.

All agree, the victory further confirms Carnegie Mellon's already well-established reputation in robotics.

Dr. Whittaker and others compared Boss' accomplishment with transportation milestones including Charles Lindbergh's solo airplane flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Anthony J. Tether, DARPA director, compared it with another famous finish.

"The big deal here is that Tartan Racing has shown this can be done," he said. "It's just like when Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile. Up until then, there were doctors who said it couldn't be done. But after he did it, several other people followed quickly in about three months.

"That's what Tartan Racing did."

Tartan Racing continues to work with its sponsors -- GM, Caterpillar, Continental, Google, Intel and others -- to adapt the technology for commercial uses.

Dr. Urmson gave a lecture Wednesday at Carnegie Mellon on how the team developed the technology that allowed Boss to travel with precision through a course without crashing, getting stuck or losing its way. It also abided by traffic laws.

The technology, he said, someday will allow vehicles to drive themselves, which frees riders for other things. It also will provide disabled or elderly people a means of traveling and reduce crashes.

"There are lots of motivations for what we're doing besides the 'Rah-rah, we won the race,' " he said. "We had a gigantic team of great people. It was the most amazing day ever witnessed in robotics. I believe safe autonomous travel is real. It no longer is a mysterious thing."

He said Tartan Racing overcame sizable challenges in only a year and a half. It developed complex software algorithms used to make computer maps of the terrain. It modified high-tech sensors and used other technology to make Boss go. Dr. Urmson said the team also played the "Imperial March" from "Star Wars" every time someone eliminated a bug in the software. That meant playing the march 522 times from Sept. 1 until race day.

Boss defeated 10 other finalists, including arch-rival Stanford University. More than 70 other teams failed to make the qualifying rounds or finals.

But Boss did have a few close calls. It failed to start due to interference from a JumboTron. Once on the road, it made a U-turn then took a nine-minute detour to avoid a difficult intersection. It also became confused when it came too close to a Jersey barrier, but shimmied until it could continue on its way.

Dr. Whittaker complained the Victorville course was too easy for Boss.

Next on his agenda, Dr. Whittaker said, is to try claiming the $25 million Lunar X Prize sponsored by Google and the X Foundation. That will require landing a robotic rover on the moon that can travel at least 5 kilometers and beam photographs back to Earth. The deadline is the end of 2012, with a smaller prize if it succeeds before the end of 2014.

But last week Dr. Whittaker focused on celebrating the victory in Victorville.

"Something like this really does take a village, and we got it," Dr. Whittaker said, referring to his team and sponsoring corporations. "It's a wonderful thing to be believed in."

Or as Dr. Urmson concluded, "We did some really exciting stuff."


David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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