FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
ROBOT RACE TO LAS VEGAS
Team Phantasm responds to the DARPA Challenge
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
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
TEAM PHANTASM RESPONDS TO THE CHALLENGE
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
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.
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
Phantasm and Ladibug
Team Phantasm borrowed its name from an old science
fiction movie. It consists of four members:
Williams, 38, of Baldwin, Missouri, is the project leader.
He calibrates precision manufacturing tools for TIC-MS.
Zimmerly, 47, of St. Louis Missouri, is semi-retired and
writes advanced computer software.
Bean, 34, of OFallon, Missouri, is a meteorologist for
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.
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.
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