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Team Phantasm responds to the DARPA Challenge

On March 13, an odd assortment of computer nerds, sheet metal fabricators, mechanics, university professors, students and defense contractors will gather in the dusty California desert just outside Barstow, Calif. Comprising several team efforts, they will come together for one purpose: to see which of their off-highway vehicles can race across the high desert to a finish line set in Las Vegas.

But there's a catch to this race: These vehicles must drive themselves to Las Vegas. Human operators and remote control are strictly verboten, and teams cannot, under any circumstances, interfere with their vehicles' progress.

Welcome to the DARPA Challenge.
Sponsored by the Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA)--an arm of the U.S. Defense Department--the purpose of the DARPA Challenge is to attract the nation's brightest inventors into competition for the purpose of creating an unmanned vehicle that can carry supplies or perform reconnaissance missions on the battlefield.

While DARPA isn't necessarily a household name, many of the agency's creations are recognized worldwide, including stealth aircraft, smart bombs, the pilotless Predator aircraft and most popular of all, the Internet.

For the DARPA Challenge, inventors have been tasked with developing a vehicle that will navigate a course of approximately 300 miles between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The team that most quickly completes the course in less than ten hours wins $1 million. What's more, each vehicle must pass through designated check points along the course. And the final kicker: the coordinates of the actual course will not be given to teams until one hour before the start of the race. (Software programmers, get on your marks!)

While a $1 million prize is certainly a worthy objective, most teams are in it for the bragging rights, not to mention the possibility of government patents and research contracts. It's also not surprising that some of the teams represent prestigious universities with advanced computer and robotic programs, big budgets ranging from a half-million to several million dollars, and technical advice from defense contractors. With visions of futuristic battle droids dancing in their heads, they sport team names like Center for Intelligent Machines and Robotics, Rover Systems and SciAutonics. Their vehicles also cover the gamut of creativity, from a Honda Civic to a fourwheel-drive Hummer.

Then there are the smaller teams, operating on smaller budgets.

In what might be viewed as a David versus Goliath effort, Team Phantasm (its name is borrowed from an old sci-fi movie) is coordinating its efforts from a suburban home outside St. Louis, and so far its budget barely exceeds $30,000. But in the developing world of robotics, Team Phantasm is just as much a contender, and they're doing it all with a small vehicle humbly named Ladibug.

Like the Biblical David, team leader Warren Williams isn't intimidated by the competition. Rather, he believes Team Phantasm's reliance on creativity, practical know-how and more than just a little bit of backyard engineering gives Ladibug an advantage. "When people say something like this can't be done, it just motivates me to prove them wrong," says 38-year-old Williams. "Anything can be done if you apply the right technology and the right mental attitude. It's just a matter of finding the particular things that work to get over the technological humps."

Team Phantasm's primary sponsor is Kawasaki Motors Corp., U.S.A., which donated a fourwheel-drive Prairie® all-terrain vehicle (ATV) to the project. Williams, who earns his living calibrating precision manufacturing tools, handled most of the fabrication and assembly himself, transforming the Kawasaki into an unmanned robotic vehicle. Bill Zimmerly, a semi-retired computer programmer, wrote Ladibug's software programs, and two of Williams? co-workers, Brian Bean and Chris Milam, donated their time and expertise in fabrication, electrical wiring, and radar and sonar systems.

In simplest terms, the Kawasaki Prairie ATV comprises the starting point for Ladibug's metamorphosis. Stripped of its handlebars, seat and plastic body work, it has been fitted with various electrical controls and pneumatic mechanisms, which are all operated by a solid state computer. The wheels have been replaced with mattracks for maximum traction and stability, and Ladibug is covered with a sheet metal dome painted red with black dots.

"Williams says the Kawasaki ATV platform should give Ladibug better all-around performance than his competitors" larger vehicles, especially when crossing through checkpoints. "The size of the Prairie ATV and its abilities versus the speed it will need to travel makes it the best choice for what we're doing," he says.

Ladibug will need to be more than fast. It will need to "see" and "think" its way across the desert, going over, around or through a myriad of obstacles, including rocks, brush and dry stream beds, all while maintaining an average speed of 40 mph. The mission is further complicated by the need to avoid competing vehicles.

To build a vehicle that can do all this without human assistance appears overwhelming and Williams readily admits that it's unlikely any team will finish the race. "The engineering challenges to build this vehicle are quite literally the same as going to the moon and back," he says. But that isn't stopping him and others from trying.

Besides, technological challenges are nothing new to Williams. In his spare time he and his family build BattleBots, competing in robotic demolitions around the country. His greatest accomplishment in this arena of competition was a fourth-place finish at the Robot Wars Extreme Warrior 3, held in London two years ago. "We were up against the best robots in the world, so I'd say that wasn't too bad for our first time out," he says.

While the mental challenge motivates Williams, he says family considerations also play a part. As a former Marine, he believes competitive events like the DARPA Challenge are necessary for fostering new ideas that can be used to protect America's soldiers and marines.

"My brother is a staff sergeant in the Marines and my nephew is a Spec Four in the Army, and they're both in Iraq right now," he explains. "I know that being on the ground in a combat situation and having to stick your head up to take a peak at the enemy's position isn't something you necessarily want to do. So the goal is to build a machine that can do it. Imagine the advantages a swarm of vehicles like this could have on the battlefield."

Should Ladibug win the DARPA Challenge, Williams says he will split the $1 million prize with his main partner, Bill Zimmerly. Williams would then use his half of the winnings to invest in business ventures "yet to be determined." If Ladibug doesn't win, Team Phantasm will assess the strengths and weaknesses of its current approach and try again next year.

Either way, by luck of the draw, DARPA Challenge administrators have chosen Team Phantasm to give the first qualification inspection and demonstration beginning March 8. Twenty-five teams have been invited to this demonstration, but only 20 will be chosen to race on March 13. All eyes will focus on the small, dome-shaped vehicle painted like an insect and wearing a Kawasaki logo with the slogan "Let the good times roll.
" With a little luck and determination, Ladibug will do just that.


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the central research and development organization for the Department of Defense (DoD). It manages and directs selected basic and applied research and development projects for DoD, and pursues research and technology where risk and payoff are both very high and where success may provide dramatic advances for traditional military roles and missions.
Web site:

The DARPA Challenge
DARPA intends to conduct a challenge of autonomous ground vehicles between Los Angeles and Las Vegas in March of 2004. A cash award of $1 million will be granted to the team that fields the first vehicle to complete the designated route within a specified time limit. The purpose of the challenge is to leverage American ingenuity to accelerate the development of autonomous vehicle technologies that can be applied to military requirements.
Web site:

Team Phantasm and Ladibug
Team Phantasm borrowed its name from an old science fiction movie. It consists of four members:

  • Warren Williams, 38, of Baldwin, Missouri, is the project leader. He calibrates precision manufacturing tools for TIC-MS.

  • Bill Zimmerly, 47, of St. Louis Missouri, is semi-retired and writes advanced computer software.

  • Brian Bean, 34, of OFallon, Missouri, is a meteorologist for TIC-MS.

  • Chris Milam, 29, of St. Charles, Missouri, also works for TIC-MS.
    "Ladibug" is the acronym for the Kawasaki Prairie-based Long-range Autonomous Directionally Intuitive Boundary-sensing Unmanned Ground Vehicle.
    Web site:

Kawasaki Prairie® 700 4x4 all-terrain vehicle (ATV)
Team Phantasm utilizes the chassis and powertrain of a Kawasaki Prairie® 700 4x4 ATV for Ladibug. As the flagship of the Kawasaki Prairie line, this particular model is powered by a liquid-cooled, four-stroke V-twin engine. It utilizes a fully automatic transmission (Kawasaki Automatic Power-Drive System) and features selectable four-wheel drive. V-twin-powered Kawasaki ATVs have won numerous awards for their power, performance and leading-edge designs.
Web site:

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