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DARPA Grand Challenge

Red Team Racing's Hummer
Red Team Racing's Hummer

The DARPA Grand Challenge is a competition for fully autonomous vehicles to complete an under-300 mile, off-road course in the Mojave Desert. The challenge, which occurs every year or so, took place for the first time on March 13, 2004 and was sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In the first year of the event, none of the robot vehicles came even close to meeting the challenge. Future holdings of the competiton, however, are expected to include improved results by the competitors.

This was the first such distance competition in the United States; to date, there have been other competitions for semi-autonomous vehicles, but none on the scale of the Grand Challenge. The US Defense Department has permitted DARPA to offer prize money (US $1 million) to facilitate robotic development, with the ultimate goal of making one of three ground military forces automated by 2015.

Following the 2004 event, DARPA Director Dr. Tony Tether announced that the prize money had been increased to US $2 million for the next event which is scheduled for October 8, 2005.

The competition is open to all US citizens and organizations, including high school and college students, businesses and other organizations. More than 100 teams registered in the first year, bringing a wide variety of technological skills to the race.


Summary of DARPA Grand Challenge Rules

  • The vehicle must travel autonomously on the ground in under ten hours.
  • The vehicle must stay within the course boundaries as defined by a data file provided by DARPA.
  • The vehicle may use GPS and other public signals.
  • No control commands may be sent to the vehicle while en route.
  • The vehicle must not intentionally touch any other competing vehicle.
  • An autonomous service station is permitted at a checkpoint area approximately halfway between start and finish.

DARPA is conducting this challenge in association with SCORE International Off-Road Racing.


DARPA will give a prize of $2 million to the first team to complete the course in under ten hours.

2004 Grand Challenge

Team ENSCO's vehicle, DAVID
Team ENSCO's vehicle, DAVID

The 2004 Grand Challenge was held in the Mojave Desert along a 150-mile route that follows along the path of Interstate 15 from just before Barstow, California to just past the California-Nevada border in Primm.

Preliminary tests

Prior to the main event in the Mojave Desert, the teams were required to navigate a mile-long obstacle course at California Speedway. Three teams were able to successfully complete the entire course, while three more almost completed it and another half dozen teams completed a portion of the course. After it became clear that the challenge may be over before it even began (with the high failure rate as the teams worked the kinks out of their vehicles), DARPA decided to scrap the initial tests and allow fifteen of the teams to run the race anyway, in the hopes that the many mechanical problems experienced by the teams would be sorted out prior to the main event.

The event

Unfortunately, the failures of the vehicles during the preliminary tests were indicative of how the vehicles would perform on the actual course. Only three hours into the event, a mere four vehicles remained operational. The vehicles that failed suffered from a variety of mechanical problems: "stuck brakes, broken axles, rollovers and malfunctioning satellite navigation equipment." [1]

Within a few hours, all of the vehicles in the challenge had suffered critical vehicle failures, had been disqualified or had withdrawn. The furthest any of the teams had gotten was the Red Team's 7.4 miles (which went off course in the tightest hairpin, and got stuck on the embankment), less than 5% of the full length of the course. The other close vehicles were the SciAutonics II Team, which traversed 6.7 miles when the vehicle became stuck on an embankment, and the Golem Group's vehicle which made it 5.2 miles before getting trapped on a steep hill.

The results

Although the initial race was deemed a failure due to no vehicles even achieving anything close to the goal, DARPA has committed to running the challenge again for as long as Congressional authority allows (which currently runs to 2007, but can be extended).

In addition to the difficulty many vehicles had with the harsh terrain, a critical problem many initial designs had concerned the inability to handle two distinct problems simultaneously: sensing upcoming obstacles and following the GPS waypoints. DARPA Grand Challenge deputy program manager Tom Strat said, "some of the vehicles were able to follow the GPS waypoints very accurately; but were not able to sense obstacles ahead....Other vehicles were very good at sensing obstacles, but had difficulty following waypoints or were scared of their own shadow, hallucinating obstacles when they weren't there."

Several teams have announced plans to return again in the years to come, taking the knowledge that they learned from the 2004 event and applying it to future designs.

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Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45